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Teachers' Rights: Tenure and Dismissal

Teacher Tenure

Most states protect teachers in public schools from arbitrary dismissal through tenure statutes. Under these tenure statutes, once a teacher has attained tenure, his or her contract renews automatically each year. School districts may dismiss tenured teachers only by a showing of cause, after following such procedural requirements as providing notice to the teacher, specifying the charges against the teacher, and providing the teacher with a meaningful hearing. Most tenure statutes require teachers to remain employed during a probationary period for a certain number of years. Once this probationary period has ended, teachers in some states will earn tenure automatically. In other states, the local school board must take some action to grant tenure to the teacher, often at the conclusion of a review of the teacher's performance. Tenure also provides some protection for teachers against demotion, salary reductions, and other discipline. However, tenure does not guarantee that a teacher may retain a particular position, such as a coaching position, nor does it provide indefinite employment.

Prior to attaining tenure, a probationary teacher may be dismissed at the discretion of the school district, subject to contractual and constitutional restrictions. Laws other than those governing tenure will apply to determine whether a discharge of a teacher is wrongful. If a probationary teacher's dismissal does not involve discrimination or does not violate terms of the teacher's contract, the school district most likely does not need to provide notice, summary of charges, or a hearing to the teacher.

In the absence of a state tenure statute, a teacher can still attain de facto tenure rights if the customs or circumstances of employment demonstrate that a teacher has a "legitimate claim of entitlement for job tenure." The United States Supreme Court recognized this right in the case of Perry v. Sindermann, which also held that where a teacher has attained de facto tenure, the teacher is entitled to due process prior to dismissal by the school district.

State laws do not govern the tenure process at private schools. However, a contract between a private school district and a teacher may provide tenure rights, though enforcement of these rights is related to the contract rights rather than rights granted through the state tenure statute.

Dismissal for Cause

A school must show cause in order to dismiss a teacher who has attained tenure status. Some state statutes provide a list of circumstances where a school may dismiss a teacher. These circumstances are similar to those in which a state agency may revoke a teacher's certification. Some causes for dismissal include the following:

  • Immoral conduct
  • Incompetence
  • Neglect of duty
  • Substantial noncompliance with school laws
  • Conviction of a crime
  • Insubordination
  • Fraud or misrepresentation

Due Process Rights of Teachers

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, like its counterpart in the Fifth Amendment, provides that no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." This clause applies to public school districts and provides the minimum procedural requirements that each public school district must satisfy when dismissing a teacher who has attained tenure. Note that in this context, due process does not prescribe the reasons why a teacher may be dismissed, but rather it prescribes the procedures a school must follow to dismiss a teacher. Note also that many state statutory provisions for dismissing a teacher actually exceed the minimum requirements under the Due Process Clause.

The United States Supreme Court case of Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill is the leading case involving the question of what process is due under the Constitution. This case provides that a tenured teacher must be given oral or written notice of the dismissal and the charges against him or her, an explanation of the evidence obtained by the employer, and an opportunity for a fair and meaningful hearing.

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