Teacher's Rights

AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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Teachers in the United States enjoy a number of rights pertaining to their employment, including recognition of certain freedoms, prohibition against certain forms of discrimination, and significant protections against dismissal from their position. These rights are derived from state and federal constitutional provisions, state and federal statutes, and state and federal regulations.

Constitutional provisions provide protection to teachers at public schools that are generally not available to teachers at private schools. Since public schools are state entities, constitutional restrictions on state action limit some actions that public schools may take with respect to teachers or other employees. Rights that are constitutional in nature include the following:

Substantive and procedural due process rights, including the right of a teacher to receive notice of termination and a right to a hearing in certain circumstances

Freedom of expression and association provided by the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights

Academic freedom, a limited concept recognized by courts based on principles of the First Amendment

Protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by school officials of a teacher's personal property provided by the Fourth Amendment

Though private school teachers do not generally enjoy as much of the constitutional protection as

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public school teachers, statutes may provide protection against discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, protects teachers at both public and private schools from racial, sexual, or religious discrimination. Private school teachers may also enjoy rights in their contracts that are similar to due process rights, including the inability of a private school to dismiss the teacher without cause, notice, or a hearing.

Teacher Certification
Certification Requirements

Every state requires that teachers complete certain requirements to earn a teacher's certificate in order to teach in that state. Most states extend this requirement to private schools, though some jurisdictions may waive this for certain sectarian or denominational schools. The requirements that must be satisfied and the procedures that must be followed to earn certification vary from state to state. Requirements generally include completion of a certified education program, completion of a student teaching program, acceptable performance on a standardized test or tests, and submission of background information to the appropriate state agency in charge of accreditation. Some states require more extensive physical and mental testing of teachers and a more extensive background check. Some states also require drug testing of applicants prior to certification. An increasing number of states now require teachers to complete a satisfactory number of continuing education credits to maintain certification.

Denial or Revocation of Teaching Certificate

Courts have held consistently that teaching certificates are not contracts. Thus, requirements to attain or maintain a certificate may be changed and applied to all teachers and prospective teachers. The certification process is administered by state certifying agencies in each state, and most of these agencies have been delegated significant authority with respect to the administration of these rules. Despite this broad delegation, however, the state agencies may not act arbitrarily, nor may these agencies deny or revoke certification on an arbitrary basis. Some state statutes provide that a certificate may be revoked for "just cause." Other common statutory grounds include the following:

Immoral conduct or indecent behavior


Violations of ethical standards

Unprofessional conduct

Misrepresentation or fraud

Willful neglect of duty

Tenure and Dismissal of Teachers

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 may 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

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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


Neglect of duty

Substantial noncompliance with school laws

Conviction of a crime


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.

Teacher Contracts

The law of contracts applies to contracts between teachers and school...

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