The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The attack on bad teacher tenure laws is actually an attack on black professionals

(Bigstock photos)

After the Vergara v. California decision in California’s state Supreme Court, which held that key job protections for teachers are unconstitutional, anti-union advocates everywhere began spawning copycat lawsuits. But while reformers may genuinely want to fix education for everyone, their efforts will only worsen diversity in the teaching corps. The truth is that an attack on bad teacher tenure laws (and ineffective teachers in general) is actually an attack on black professionals. If the Vergara clones succeed, black children will lose effective teachers and the black community will lose even more middle-class jobs.

Black workers are most likely to hold public sector union jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among the major ethnic groups, blacks (13.6 percent) represent the highest percentage of union members among the total number of workers (whites are 11 percent; Asians are 9.4 percent; and Hispanics are 9.4 percent), and the highest unionization rates among all professions were in the education services occupations (35.3 percent). In 26 of the 48 jurisdictions (states plus the District of Columbia) where at least some black and some white teachers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, blacks are more likely to be covered by agreements than whites. This is the case in California, where the Vergara decision originated. Blacks are more likely to teach in urban areas in many states, and so are more likely to be covered by collective bargaining. Therefore, black teachers have much at stake in the Vergara decision.

An attack on bad teacher tenure laws is actually an attack on black professionals

Blacks consistently are paid less than their peers in unprotected jobs. In the same 2013 report, BLS found that union members had median weekly earnings of $950, while those who were nonunion full-time and salary workers had median weekly earnings of $750.

This is just a small corner of the broadening black-white wage gap: Pew reports that median weekly earnings of those in the lowest wage bracket among blacks “decreased 7.7 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2013 while the earnings of those in the highest wage bracket increased 1.9 percent. Over the same period, the pay of white low-wage workers fell 5.6% and the pay of white high-wage workers rose 3.4 percent.”

Ironically, blacks are also more likely to live in right-to-work states and also live in states with lower unionization rates. Blacks are more likely to live in states where teachers cannot bargain collectively, and Southern states still have a higher share of black teachers. Labor laws have not been favorable to black workers.

My work in New Orleans showed me what can happen when black teachers lose protections. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans School Board summarily and illegally fired its 7,500 teachers and staff. Based on 2000 census data, nearly 5 percent of New Orleans blacks lost their jobs with that decision. Then, citing the absence of  teachers (who had evacuated), the board chose not to renew the collective bargaining agreement with United Teachers of New Orleans. The (mostly black) teachers were gone, and there followed no systemic effort to recruit the best ones back.

Nine years later, New Orleans reformers rave about growth on test scores. But the quality of any reform must be measure against other quality of life measures to see the broader impact. The share of New Orleans’s black middle- and upper-income households dipped from 35 percent to 31 percent, while their white counterparts increased from 60 percent to 68 percent.Whites on average are paid  twice as much as blacks. Education reform, by extracting so many working-age blacks from their jobs (and, subsequently, from the middle class), has exacerbated these trends.

The education-reform community has convinced us that closing the achievement gap by any means necessary is a worthy, final end. No. Education is just one path toward a stronger community. Indiscriminately firing the members of a community, or making it hassle-free to do so, is no way to improve it. It is simply false that “failing schools are employment offices that keep thousands of failing teachers and staff employed.”

Schools are not supposed to improve in spite of the community; they’re supposed to build the strength of a community. Schools should develop minds, train future workers and enrich communities through employment opportunities for its members. Great schools excel at all three. But Vergara copycats would create fewer jobs for blacks, not more. Black communities would lose effective teachers. Further, black children rely on a strong black middle class — their parents. When we fire black teachers, we hurt black families and communities.

One consequence of Vergara is the state-sanctioned use of test scores and unreliable teacher-evaluation systems to fire teachers who have labor protections. The “value added modeling,” which use scores to evaluate teachers in 40 states, are too unreliable to attach to job security and pay. Yet judges, state chiefs and districts press on.

Vergara’s defenders are onto something when they say schools need faster ways to remove ineffective, racist, sexist and uncommitted teachers. I personally believe that, along with evaluations, the period before one is granted tenure should at least be longer than the duration after which the average teacher leaves the profession (4-5 years). Still, changes like these can be made in the current framework of teacher tenure laws.

Black unemployment has been shown to be the collateral damage of prior efforts to cut protections in education reform. Vergara activists must not only prove how gutting tenure laws leads to better schooling; they must show how the entire community benefits. Black families can’t be expected to sacrifice the protection we want our current students and children to have in the future.