The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is this the beginning of the end of teacher tenure?

John Deasy, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District testifies  Jan. 27, 2014, in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County in Vergara v. The State of California. (AP Photo/Monica Almeida)

Teachers’ unions just got whacked by a California judge who bought the specious argument offered in the “Vergara trial” that state laws giving tenure, seniority and other job protections to public school teachers deprive students of their constitutional right to an adequate education.  Though he stayed his Tuesday decision striking down five state statutes on teacher employment until an appeal could be made, more such lawsuits will now be filed in other states.

Is this the beginning of the end of teacher tenure? Don’t bet on it, and not only because the issue is likely to drag on through the courts for a long time but because the notion that job protections for teachers necessarily hurt students doesn’t track. How and to whom tenure is given can and arguably should be changed, and it should be easier to remove bad teachers than it is in some places. But there are so many other factors that contribute to public education’s problems — unequal and unfair funding,  absent parents, inadequate nutrition, etc. — that anyone who thinks that doing away with teachers’ job protections will help is dreaming.

The decision in Vergara v. California by  Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf  M. Treu is a triumph for school “reformers” such as Michelle Rhee who have been trying to weaken teachers unions with lawsuits (such as Vergara) and the funding of like-minded political candidates in local, state and congressional elections.

 The case was brought by nine students who said they had received an awful education in Los Angeles public schools because of bad teachers. They were funded by an organization called Students Matter funded by a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire, David Welch, who paid for an elite team of lawyers to sue California and argue that teacher tenure is responsible for the lousy education the plaintiffs received. They said that union rules made it too hard for school officials to fire bad teachers, who are concentrated in schools with high populations of students who live in poverty and who should have the best teachers.

State officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, and teachers unions testified in court that the laws guaranteeing due process to teachers were not responsible for inadequate education and that eliminating them would not get rid of the real cause of the problems the plaintiffs encountered in Los Angeles public schools: unequal funding of school districts and the effects on many young people who live in poverty and come to school unprepared to learn. They also said that most public school  teachers are competent and that due process is important to protect workers from arbitrary and unfair personnel decisions by bosses.

With this win in California, more lawsuits will be filed in states that may include New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.

As soon as the verdict came out, Students Matter quickly posted a section on its Web site titled “Victory” with a statement hailing the court decision that quoted Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy as calling the verdict “historic” and a “call to action.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that the court decision was “a mandate to fix” systems “that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students.”

Teachers union leaders reacted as you would expect. Here’s a tweet from Karen Lewis, the activist president of the Chicago Teachers Union:

Diane Ravitch, an education historian and activist, said on her blog that the verdict was “a big win for the Billionaire Boys Club, a name she has given to a group of very wealthy philanthropists who have been funding pet projects in education for years. She also said: Name a state that has no due process rights for teachers and excellent public schools. One?”

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said in a statement:

‘[The] ruling would make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms and ignores all research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching … Let’s be clear: This lawsuit was never about helping students, but is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda on public schools and students while working to privatize public education….”

Here are some reactions from Post readers  to a story on the court verdict by The Post’s Lyndsey Layton:

5:55 PM EST
Very interesting that the war on unions corrolates directly to stagnated wages by the working class… 30 years of union busting = 30 years of no raises…


6:08 PM EST
There are examples of people in the “private sector” being “bad” at their job and not getting fired.
But that isn’t the point. Every profession has bad apples that are just good enough that in the end they are worth keeping.
Here is the bigger point. Not one of the nations that beats the US in the international test scores race has done so by eliminating protections for teachers. All of europe’s teachers are tenured and their schools do very well.
This is barking up the wrong tree. They hardly pay teachers anything. This court case continues down the wrong headed path of blaming teachers for problems that are far bigger than teachers themselves. Until we address those issues as a nation, we are going to continue to weaken our school system with simplistic “solutions” to complex problems.
6:32 PM EST
Tenure should not be abolished. Tenure does NOT mean a job for life. It means that a teacher can not be fired without due process. What needs to change is the process. Abolishing tenure sets up a whole host of other problems. Teachers need some degree of independence in the classroom. They need to be able to teach in ways that may be unorthodox or unacceptable to the principal in order to reach some students who may be difficult to reach. Abolishing tenure allows principals to arbitrarily fire teachers for reasons which may not be related to their performance. The worst HR managers on the planet are principals. Most don’t know how to relate to other adult professionals on an adult level, know nothing about a collegial model of leadership, lack interpersonal relationship skills and rule by fear and intimidation.
As for Michelle Rhee, she wrought havoc in DCPS and it made NO DIFFERENCE whatsoever. What has gotten better in DCPS is the students entering the system: we’ve seen more children enter DCPS over the past several years from stable, functional homes of a higher socio-economic status as the gentrifiers enroll their children in DCPS.
As for ineffective teachers in low-income schools: Rhee and her gang want to bring in TFA teachers who have a six week summer crash course in teaching. That’s their answer. That’s no better than what we’ve got.
The reality is that good teachers aren’t going to teach in low income schools. Behavior problems are rampant, there is no support from the administration and your evaluation is now based on student test scores. It’s a set up for failure for both teachers and students.
Tenure was one of the last few perks of being a teacher. You could be guaranteed a job if you did your job. If it falls like dominos, then that, along with VAM and other issues we will see a mass exodus from the teaching profession. It’s already happening to some extent but will only get worse.
5:21 PM EST
I entered the teaching profession at a time when teachers were in demand. Two years later I was laid off along with thousands of other ‘last hired/first fired’ teachers. Upon entering, my first assignment after subbing was a 6th grade class of the worst of the worst. I was the fifth teacher and took over the class in Feb. Students were out of control and some told me, “We got rid of them and we’re going to get rid of you.” I made it to the end of the year and was given a position at another equally tough school. I was the least experienced and was sent to teach the most demanding students. The ‘experienced’ or ‘tenured’ teachers wanted nothing to do with these kids. Who could blame them? The problem is much larger and starts with idiotic concepts of kids having fun and expressing themselves only from pre kindergarten through elementary. There is precious little control from society in the schools that are failing.
Our son went to a top of the line public school and the standards were if you caused trouble you were expelled. If you wanted a great education then you behaved. The kids in the district had all been brought up that way. The problems in the inner city and minority populated area schools is that the school boards are threatened with legal action if they expel an unruly student that steals the education of the others by disrupting the class. This is a multi-faceted problem and will not be solved by attacking one issue and disregarding the rest. Public education must be ruled by the society, not those who look to sue and make a quick buck or label this or that treatment unconstitutional or racist. If parents cannot or will not discipline their kids then the society must take on that responsibility from the earliest age. The main problem in inner city schools is behavior and even the best teachers cannot overcome students who’s main task is to get rid of the teacher.


5:06 PM EST
As a retired California teacher (and an attorney) I find that the judge here has no grasp of the operation of the public schools. First, there is no tenure for California teachers. There is simply a requirement that they receive due process before being dismissed. Most districts fail to document the poor performance of teachers. A few do their homework and fire “tenured” teachers annually. Most of the good teachers I knew did not want to teach in the worst schools, and would leave the profession if forced to, as the judge seems to want. That would leave only the duds. Why so many duds? The salaries aren’t commensurate with the work. Teaching is not volunteering. I wonder if the judge would stay on his job for $85,000 a year? I doubt it. Few teachers earn that, because in most districts it takes 12 years to get to that level. Many quit long before that. … “Fast pitch” highlighted some of the problems. … For comparison, let’s look at the legal profession and criminal defense. Poor defendants get overworked and underfunded public defenders or similarly situated contract attorneys. Wealthy ones (e.g. O.J.) get top-rate ones. So should the courts require that all defendants get top flight attorneys and unlimited funding for peripherals? That’s the argument the judge makes for schools. … Just as all attorneys are not “created equal,” neither are teachers. If a state forced all the “good” teachers into the “worst’ schools, then students at the “good” schools would be deprived of access to top teachers. The judge, like the No Child Left Behind law, seems to contemplate Lake Wobegone, “where all the children are above average.” Adequate funding would go far to attract and retain capable young people to teaching. Taxpayers won’t support that, just as they won’t adequately fund the courts. Oh well. [For the record I taught at a “Title I" public high school in Stockton, CA, for 23 years, and have a pretty good idea of what I speak.]
Oregon Owldog
5:20 PM EST [Edited]
This is a dilemma for people on the left, like myself. There is no greater supporter of Democratic campaigns than teachers in unions, yet their sometimes-tyrannical behavior at self-protection and job-security are some of the few criticisms, which people on the right have, that are really valid.
And, it often seems, in the bigger picture, the Democratic leaders have cognitive dissonance about these issues in general.

Here’s the judge’s decision: