There's still a good reason for academic tenure in this country -- at the collegiate level, where it was created, to ensure academic freedom of thought and speech.

At the secondary and elementary levels of teaching, however, the system needs reform.

Tenure in California's public schools is an awful lot easier to get than in a university, where it is granted mostly to scholars who not only have their Ph.D.s, but who have repeatedly had to prove their research and teaching abilities.

California K-12 teachers get tenure -- including significant protection from being fired for cause -- after about 18 months of service. That's a very low bar indeed for any profession.

So the legal debate on the issue of tenure for teachers that began Monday in a Los Angeles courtroom as the result of a lawsuit seeking to end it is both a welcome one and an entry point into the question of just what is plaguing the public schools in our state and the nation. The answer to that question is certainly not solely the ability to get rid of problematic teachers.

No, California wouldn't become a middle-class Scandinavian paradise if principals win the right to get rid of lousy teachers simply because they are lousy. Nor would we see an overnight hundred-point increase in the average school's API scores, if the lawsuit wins the right to get rid of union rules that make pure longevity a key factor in who gets to keep teacher jobs when layoffs occur.


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Such decisions would merely return a modicum of logic to the educational workplace, the same kind that is at play where most of us work.

Executives -- school boards and superintendents -- would be allowed to hire good managers determined to meet goals. The managers -- principals -- would be allowed to hire the teachers they think will be the best-equipped to do so. If a teacher turns out to be either mediocre or a real problem, he or she would get fired -- just as the rest of us are when we don't perform our jobs well.

And, no, when revenues drop and a general layoff is instituted, managers wouldn't be forced to keep only the old-timers, even if younger teachers are clearly better.

That's the essence of the suit filed by Silicon Valley mogul David F. Welch who has become an activist for school reform.

Unions argue that job protection is the reason for both tenure and first-in, last-out layoff practices.

Look -- Californians of good will value the vast majority of teachers who do a fine job, and would agree we need to find a way to pay our best teachers more. But this suit has merit, and the state will have better schools, if it succeeds.