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In Teacher-Tenure Battles, a War for Public Opinion Can Obscure the Nuances

Whoopi Goldberg is the latest celebrity to weigh in on the topic of teacher tenure, fueling what seems to be increasing national attention to the topic.

Her comments appear to be prompted by a lawsuit organized by former news anchor Campbell Brown against New York state's tenure and dismissal rules. Fresh off her appearance on "The Colbert Report," Brown has been making the early-morning talk-show rounds. (Not to be outdone, the American Federation of Teachers' Randi Weingarten fought back Tuesday on the MSNBC program "Morning Joe.")

At this rate, teacher tenure may exceed the Common Core State Standards as an education policy lightning rod, even as a possible wedge issue in the midterm and 2016 elections.

One thing's for sure: There's a war out there to win public opinion on the merits, or demerits, of tenure laws. Advocates like Brown are focusing on broad-brush arguments that tenure rules make it too difficult to get rid of poor teachers. Unions, alternatively, posit that tenure protects teachers from reprisals, and that attacks on tenure are really attacks on organized labor and public education. (The AFT sent back-to-back missives this week urging its allies to tweet and post to Facebook stories to that effect.) 

Given the conventional wisdom that perception is nine-tenths of the reality in political warfare, this back and forth makes sense. But it's worth taking the time to remember that tenure laws—which prevent teachers from being dismissed without cause, typically established in a hearing—are actually complex, obscure, and context-specific. State legal codes on tenure go on for pages and pages, spelling out in detail such matters as the reasons constituting just cause for firing, the timeline for filing charges and hearing cases, the type of evidence that can be presented at hearings, the appeals process, and so on and so forth. 

For cases of dismissal for incompetence, the picture is further complicated by disagreements about what constitutes an effective teacher and how to measure one. And, as with all laws, they can be implemented well or poorly.

My point is that there's a lot here in the weeds to examine. We'll do our best here at Education Week to keep you above the fray and understanding these nuances .

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