California Teachers Union on Trial

A trial began last week in Los Angeles challenging the state laws granting teacher tenure after 18 months, “last-in, first-out” layoff laws, and the elaborate dismissal procedures which make it virtually impossible for teachers to be laid off. Together, these teacher protections result in far too many grossly ineffective teachers who cannot be fired. The lawsuit, Vergara v. California, is seeking to have the court overturn these laws based on the fact that children who end up with bad teachers are being effectively denied their right to an education.

In a broader sense, however, what is actually on trial is the vision for education that has been foisted upon California by the teachers’ union, most specifically the California Teachers Association. The California Teachers Association is the most powerful special interest in California. With 325,000 members and well over $300 million in total annual dues revenue, the CTA exercises overwhelming political influence at the state and local level.

Throughout California, if you want to successfully run for the state assembly or state senate, or just want to win a seat on the local school board, you have to consider who the CTA is going to support. If they like you, you will probably win. If they don’t, expect a tough fight against long odds. Strong majorities in both the California state assembly and senate were elected with teachers union support, as well as the vast majority of school board members throughout the state.

And once they get you elected, you are expected to go along with their program, which includes supporting all of the statutes being challenged in Vergara.

If the more than six million students currently enrolled in California’s public schools were getting good educations, it wouldn’t matter so much who controlled California’s education agenda. But the data suggests otherwise. Only 34% of 4th graders and 25% of 8th graders test proficient in math, and only 25% of 4th graders and 24% of 8th graders test proficient in reading. Only 23% of California’s high school students test ready for college reading, and only 58% test ready for college math.

Despite schools that are failing, the CTA aggressively supports laws that make it virtually impossible to fire even the most grossly ineffective teachers. For example, a study by LA Weekly found that from 2000-2010, the Los Angeles Unified School District, a district with 33,000 teachers, attempted to fire only 7 teachers and spent over $3.5 million dollars attempting to do so. Eventually, only 4 teachers were dismissed.

In their zeal to protect every single one of their dues paying teachers, the CTA seems to have forgotten what every parent knows – teachers matter. Teachers have a profound impact on their students. A good teacher can make a tremendous difference in a student’s life. Eric Hanushek, a leading education economist, notes that “teachers near the top of the quality distribution can get an entire year’s worth of additional learning out of their students” and that suggests that we could dramatically improve test scores if by eliminating the the bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers and replace them with average teachers.

But the California Teachers Association steadfastly fights any reforms that would allow any teachers to be fired, or even evaluated. Last year, the CTA defeated bills that would have made it easier to remove child abusers from the classroom, and another that would have required more frequent teacher evaluations.

The Vergara case, if successful, will change, overnight, the rules protecting bad teachers which the CTA has imposed on our schools.

We can only hope.

Mark Bucher is the President of the California Public Policy Center

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