Michelle Rhee is the founder and chief executive of StudentsFirst. She was the chancellor of D.C. public schools from 2007 to 2010.
This week’s landmark court ruling in Vergara v. California represents a clear win for all children in California public schools. And it’s especially a win for the nine courageous young people who put their names on the lawsuit and stood up for their right to a quality education.
But the ruling, which struck down teacher tenure and other state laws that offer job security to educators, is also a huge win for California educators and the teaching profession as a whole. Finally, someone has declared that teachers should be rewarded for how well they serve children.
It is hard to explain why we have had a system in place that does otherwise. Year after year, as government budgets present challenges to school districts, teachers are handed pink slips. And when that happens, the rules in many school districts require that the last teacher hired must be the first one fired — regardless of talent, performance or how well students in that teacher’s class are learning. That rule is known as “last in, first out,” or LIFO.
I challenge any defenders of LIFO to explain to a parent why a great teacher was let go while his or her child will be spending a year in a classroom being taught by a less-than-great teacher.
That’s the frustration that led these nine students to file a lawsuit. During the trial, I was struck by how one described it. “It discouraged me from coming to class,” said Brandon Debose Jr., a high school senior. “I want a fair chance to succeed.”
Although the students involved in this case represent many ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds and geographies, it’s worth noting that Debose is an African American who attends school in Oakland. Why does that matter? Because today in California, African American and Latino students are far more likely to be stuck in classrooms with ineffective teachers. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, African American students are 43 percent more likely than white students to be taught by a teacher in the bottom 5 percent of effectiveness, according to testimony in the case delivered by Thomas Kane of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Latino students are 68 percent more likely.
That’s why, to me, Vergara has always been about civil rights. The case was built on the simple and undeniable premise that every child deserves equal access to a quality education — regardless of his or her race, Zip code or family circumstances. Since a great teacher is the most powerful factor inside a classroom in determining educational quality, equal access has got to mean access to great teachers.
The ruling is a tribute to teachers. One of the main focuses of our work throughout the country at StudentsFirst has been to elevate the teaching profession. Among other things, that means rewarding teachers for the great work they do — just as happens in every other admired profession. LIFO policies do not reward great teaching; they reward seniority and seniority alone.
The overwhelming majority of educators chose their line of work for altruistic reasons, not out of self-interest or a desire to lock in a job for life. Many teachers and former teachers testified to that point during the Vergara trial.
I was touched when Jonathan Moss, a former teacher, told the court: “I [became] a teacher because my students needed me. It had nothing to do with job protection. It was because I wanted to provide a service to those that I had felt . . . didn’t have opportunities that I had growing up.”
Bhavini Bhakta, an instructional coach in the Arcadia Unified School District, expressed her frustration at repeatedly receiving pink slips despite delivering for her students: “I just felt like no matter what work I did in the classroom or how hard I worked, that none of it mattered because a seniority date mattered way more. All that mattered was my hire date. You just think . . . ‘I’m a number and not a person,’ and that’s not easy.”
A lot of people who care about education reform will talk about how Vergara will positively affect educational outcomes for public schoolchildren, especially children of color — and they’ll be right to do so. However, we should not overlook the powerful statement the court made in support of great teachers. This ruling ought to set off a national discussion about how to elevate teachers and treat educators like the professionals they are.