Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu’s ruling that California tenure and other teacher job security laws are unconstitutional is far too sweeping. It benefits neither teachers nor students.
He ruled such laws were unconstitutional because they harmed predominantly low-income minority students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom. Everyone agrees “grossly incompetent” teachers should not be in the classroom, but it is plain wrong to wipe out tenure laws under the guise of fixing a much broader problem.
Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, says “No student should endure an ineffective teacher, but in focusing on teachers who make up just a fraction of the workforce, the ruling strips thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice.”
On the other side, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy: “The Vergara ruling has presented California schools with an opportunity to rectify a catastrophe.” (But if supporters of the ruling, including Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch, get their way, an even greater catastrophe would likely await traditional public schools, particularly the lowest achieving ones.)
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees with Deasy. A Department of Education press release proclaimed, “The decision affirmed the fundamental duty to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, family income or skin color, receive a quality education—starting with an effective teacher.”
Jack Schineider, professor of education at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts: “In short, the problem isn’t that teachers don’t care, it’s that they work in a field with little support for professional growth…..Instead of imagining a world in which teachers are easier to fire, we should work to imagine one in which firing is rarely necessary.”
Economist Michael Hiltzik’s column in the LA Times (June 11, 2014) deftly summarizes the case for opposing the court’s ruling.
“What’s curious about certain education activists is that they seem to have a unanimous view about the reason California schools are supposedly so bad: It’s the teachers’ unions. Not the imbalance of financial resources between rich districts and poor. Not the social pathologies—poverty, joblessness, racial discrimination, violence—that affect educational attainment in disadvantaged communities. Not California’s rank at the bottom in per-pupil expenditures.
(Actually) California’s ranks much higher compared with other states in measures of teacher incentives and working conditions, so clearly, those are the factors that need to be changed. To Judge Treu and the plutocrats who funded Vergara v. California, what’s unconstitutional about California’s school system is that teachers have too much due process protection from being fired.
Wealthy and powerful individuals and groups whose advocacy for children leads to “reforms” that won’t cost a cent but will weaken labor, is a good description of Students Matter, the organization that financed the Vergara v. California lawsuit. “Students Matter has done nothing that will put a needed book or computer in a school,” observes David B. Cohen, associate director of Accomplished California Teachers…. Not one more librarian, nurse or counselor. Not one more paint brush or musical instrument. Not one hour of instructional aide support for students or professional development. They don’t have any apparent interest in the more glaring inadequacies that their considerable wealth or PR savvy could help.”
Cohen says the students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students.
By some reckonings, the biggest threat to real progress in our schools is Arne Duncan. Like Deasy, he has bought, hook, line and sinker, the argument that the key to pedagogical competiveness for America is to equip every child with a laptop or tablet. That benefits no one but the shareholders of Apple, Inc. Look at LAUSD, where Deasy has presided over an unbelievably ill-conceived and wasteful program of buying Apple iPads at inflated prices. When the Vergara lawsuit came to trial, Deasy was front and center testifying that the big problem at LAUSD was teacher tenure.
Judge True barely acknowledges the tools administrators commonly use to deal with problem teachers other than lengthy and costly firing procedures. He glosses over the statistic mentioned in his own courtroom that the number of “grossly ineffective” teachers in California amount to 1% to 3% of the total. But even if they are ineffective and concentrated in disadvantaged districts he says he cares about, how does it (tenure) rise to the level of a constitutional offense warranting removing the job protection for all teachers?
And there’s the judge’s reliance on statistical analysis and test scores as measures of teacher quality. How do you measure it? Eviscerating the due process protection of teachers on the job won’t guarantee quality; it will only give administrators more leeway to harass or promote teachers for any reason they choose. What’s sad about the lawsuit is that it offers parents who are justly concerned about their children’s futures a remedy of pure snake oil.
The court’s single focus on tenure was wrong-headed and, as mentioned, failed to take into sufficient account other key factors related to teacher effectiveness. A more realistic assessment is essential for improving educational outcomes for all students, especially Black students, who remain the lowest achieving and most vulnerable.