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Tax-Free Teachers?

Vergara Update: Virtues and Villainy

The union and media reactions to the appeals court decision in the Vergara case had me going through a whole can of room deodorizer.

In 2014, the plaintiffs in the Vergara trial claimed that several California education statutes – all of which are on the books at the behest of the teachers unions – cause greater harm to minority and economically disadvantaged populations because their schools “have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers.” Judge Treu ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on every issue, removing five statutes concerning tenure, seniority and teacher dismissal rules from the state’s constitution, adding, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” Well, it’s now 2016 and last week the Court of Appeals shocked the plaintiffs by overturning the original decision.

Some of the wording in the ruling was quite interesting: “Critically, plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students.” Also, Justice Roger Boren, wrote in his opinion that it was the court’s job merely to determine whether or not the statutes are constitutional, not whether they’re “a good idea.” As Reason’s Brian Doherty points out, “The core of the new decision, which seems to this non-lawyer (and non teacher, and non student) to be saying that if the crummy policies are as near as we can tell causing equal harm to all California students rather than special harm to an identifiable group, then the Court feels powerless to overturn them.” Or in plainer English, “All kids are hurt by crappy teachers, so get over it.”

The justices are of the mind that much of the problem falls on administrators. While this certainly may be true to some degree, the path for principals to get rid of a rotten apple is currently so onerous and time-consuming that many, understandably, choose to stick with the poor performers and try to place them in positions where they do the least damage. Also, getting rid of bad teachers is very costly. Recently in Los Angeles, it took $3.5 million just to try to get rid of seven tenured teachers who were deemed incompetent and only four of them were actually removed.

Needless to say, much has been written about the successful appeal, but not all the reporting has been accurate. Unsurprisingly, the teachers unions’ responses were ecstatic, and laden with mounds of bunkum.

I will attempt to separate reality from fantasy.

First of all, the case is not over. This is a three-round fight and to be sure the unions were victorious in Round 2, but the plaintiffs won the first round and will appeal to the California Supreme Court which will ultimately decide the winner. (Don’t hold your breath, however; it could take a year before there is a final decision.)

The Los Angeles Times reported, “In a major victory for unions, a California appeals court on Thursday reversed a lower court ruling that had thrown out tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers.” (Emphasis added.)

No, not really. Judge Treu did not say teacher tenure is detrimental per se; rather, he stressed that the probationary period for teachers is too short. California is one of only five states where schools reward teachers with tenure after only two years or less. In 41 states, the probationary term ranges from three to five years and four states don’t allow tenure at all. In any event, the decision was never about “throwing out tenure,” but rather extending the probationary period.

The National Education Association crowed that the verdict was a “major victory for due process.” Again, wrong. It’s not “due process.” In fact it’s not even really “tenure.” What teachers achieve after two years on the job is “permanent status.” Think about it. Other than the SCOTUS Justices, who else in the world has a permanent job? Do you? Of course not, and for good reason. If you do well, you keep your job; if you don’t perform well you lose your job. Why do we have this awful law for people who deal with our most precious commodity – our children?!

Regarding seniority or “last in, first out,” the unions claim that this is the only way to determine layoffs because it is “objective.” Well, it is indeed “objective” and that’s exactly the problem with it. It makes about as much sense as retaining teachers by alphabetical order. So if layoffs are necessary and your surname is Allen, you are in good shape. But if your last name is Zygmond, adios!

California Teachers Association president Eric Heins was jubilant. “I consider this a victory for teachers and a victory for students. What these statutes have done is…bring stability to the system.” Stability, of course, is not in and of itself a bad thing, but when permitting thousands of poorly performing teachers to stay on the job, it stinks for kids.

In praising the decision, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten dredged up every cliché in the book, including this golden oldie, “You can’t fire your way to a teaching force.” Randi, I would urge you to read what Eric Hanushek, an economist who writes extensively about education issues, has to say on the subject. After doing detailed research, he wrote that by getting rid of as few as 5 to 7 percent of bottom performers, not newest hires, and replacing them with just average teachers, education achievement in the U.S. could reach that of Canada and Finland. So yes, Randi, getting rid of bad actors can do wonders for thousands of educationally abused kids.

Coincidentally, the very day that the Vergara appeal decision was announced, a similar lawsuit was filed in Minnesota by Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, which has also filed a parallel suit in New York in 2014. Regarding the litigation, Weingarten huffed, “It’s not surprising that Campbell Brown continues to do the bidding of her monied donors—particularly when the weight of the evidence is so clear that you cannot fire your way or sanction your way or test your way to children’s educational success.” (Here, she manages to slam arch-enemy Brown, rich corporate types and get in her golden oldie in a single sentence.)

It’s worth noting that with all the judicial wrangling, the courts have rightfully not “legislated from the bench.” Regarding the dismissal statutes, the California legislature made a gesture toward sanity by passing Assembly Bill 215 in 2014. That bill makes it somewhat easier for administrators to remove teachers accused of “egregious behavior,” such as sexual abuse. And now we have Assembly Bill 934 written by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. According to the Sacramento Bee, “Under this bill, teachers who are doing poorly would be placed into a program that offers them extra professional support. If they receive another low performance review after a year in the program, they could be fired via an expedited process regardless of their experience level.” Also, permanence would not always be granted after two years and seniority would no longer be the single overriding factor in handing out pink slips. Teachers with two or more bad reviews would lose their jobs before newer teachers who have not received poor evaluations.

While I think Bonilla’s bill doesn’t go far enough, it is a heck of a lot better than what we have now. Of course, CTA disagrees. It opposes the bill because the changes “would make education an incredibly insecure profession.”

And so the beat goes on. As the teachers unions dig in, hundreds of thousands of school kids – poor and otherwise – are victimized by their work rules which have been enshrined into state law. Our only hope is that the State Supreme Court makes these rules “impermanent” and that parent and kid-friendly laws take their place.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Loss of LIFO

If Eli Broad’s charter school plan goes forward, there will be a major shake-up in the ranks of LAUSD teachers.

Philanthropist Eli Broad’s ambitious plan to create 260 new charter schools over an eight year period in Los Angeles, enrolling at least 130,000 students, will have major ramifications for many of the city’s 25,600 teachers. With this in mind, the Los Angeles Times Howard Blume wrote “Thousands of LAUSD teachers’ jobs would be at risk with charter expansion plan” last week. (Interestingly, the online version of the piece was originally titled “L.A. charter school expansion could mean huge drop in unionized teaching jobs” – a more honest title.)

The Broad plan would include places for about 5,000 more charter school teachers, which simply means that 5,000 thousand current teachers in Los Angeles could be displaced. What Blume’s article doesn’t address is just which teachers will be losing their positions. Due to seniority or last in/first out (LIFO) – a union construct that is written into the California Constitution – the teachers who could lose their jobs would not be the 5,000 poorest performing ones, but rather the 5,000 newest hired. But there is a silver lining here. While some of the 5,000 should not be in the profession, many are good teachers and some are terrific. And the latter groups will not be unemployed for long, because charter schools are independent (mostly non-unionized) and therefore not beholden to the district’s industrial style employment hierarchy, so competent teachers will be snapped up.)

20151014-UW-Sand
Philanthropist Eli Broad

Blume mentions that the new plan refers to “hiring from an expanded Teach For America and other groups that work with young, inexperienced instructors” and “makes no mention of recruiting instructors from the ranks of L.A. Unified.”

The plan might not make any mention of recruiting current teachers, but clearly the charter schools could not fill their ranks with all rookies. And therein lies the beauty of the Broad plan. Those rehired would be the good and great teachers who are working now because they are qualified, not because they are LIFO-protected.

Broad spokeswoman Swati Pandey elaborated: “We are in the process of listening to educators and community members to determine how best to support the dramatic growth of high-quality public schools in Los Angeles. We know that without great teachers, there can be no great public schools. We’re eager to engage and support teachers as part of this work.”

Needless to say, United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl had a different take. He said, “The charters are specifically looking for educators who have not had the experience of being in a union, which means that, by and large, they’re looking for teachers who may find it more challenging to raise their voice about curriculum or school conditions.”

The experience of being in a union…? What?! And where does he get the idea that only unionized teachers dare to speak up about “curriculum and school conditions?”

But then again, maybe the UTLA boss is just mouthing the union party line and his transparency should be applauded. In 2009 UTLA president A.J. Duffy told a group of young teachers at Liechty Middle School, “Saving your jobs would mean that more experienced teachers would lose theirs. Seniority is the only fair way to do it . . . and any exception would be an act of disloyalty.” The California Federation of Teachers website claims that “Seniority is the only fair, transparent way to administer layoffs. It ensures equal treatment for all teachers.” (Yes, for Teachers-of-the-Year and incompetents alike, LIFO does ensure “equal treatment.”)

Others who actually have children’s and parents’ best interests at heart have a different view, however. Alluding to the teachers unions’ claim that thousands of teachers will need to be recruited over the next decade, Jim Blew, president of the Sacramento-based advocacy group StudentsFirst, said, “… they say there’s no room for teachers from organizations with proven, documented records of creating quality teachers…. L.A. needs more great teachers, and everyone should welcome them regardless of who recruited them to the city.”

Jason Mandell, Director, Advocacy Communications of the California Charter School Association (CCSA) added, “Great teachers change students’ lives. Charter school teachers do that every day and the evidence is in their students’ progress. Teachers are the heroes of the charter school movement.”

And parents agree with both Blew and Mandell.

As CCSA points out, there are 40,000 kids on charter school waitlists in Los Angeles, unable to enroll in a high quality school of their parents choosing because there aren’t enough seats. Also, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the recently released California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP) scores showed that only one-third of students in traditional LA schools performed up to their grade level in English and one-fourth did so in math, while LA charter students far outpaced their counterparts.

It should be noted that the current seniority and tenure laws, both of which are toxic to students, are imperiled. In the Vergara case, Judge Rolf Treu ruled these byzantine legal protections unconstitutional and went on to say that “it shocks the conscience.” However, the state and the teachers unions are appealing the decision. And even if Treu’s decision is upheld, we have no guarantee that the archaic statutes will be replaced by anything much better.

In summing up the situation, we are left with the following:

  • Charters allow children to escape from the antiquated zip-code monopoly education system.
  • Charters only flourish if parents choose to send their kids there.
  • Kids on average get a better education in charters.
  • Good teachers will always find work.
  • Charters will choose and retain the best teachers who fit in with their mission.
  • Poor-performing teachers will find it difficult to stay in the field.
  • Unions will have less money and power, due to diminishing ranks.

In other words, the Broad plan is a win-win-win situation for good teachers, children and their families. Mr. Caputo-Pearl, does that matter to you at all?

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Teachers Unions Appeal Vergara

… and continue to block any and every meaningful reform the California state legislature has to offer.

On May Day (how fitting!) the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers filed their appeal of the Vergara decision. In that 2014 ruling, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down California’s teacher tenure, layoff and dismissal laws, claiming that they deny students access to a quality public education, especially those from poor and minority families.

In a PR move, union bosses have been taking their rather lame case to the media. CTA president Dean Vogel somehow managed to maintain a straight face when he stated, “This suit was never about helping students. As educators we believe every student has the right to a caring, qualified and committed teacher and that is why we are appealing the judge’s misguided decision.” Then, tossing in some class warfare for flavor, he added that the judge failed to take into consideration “the impact of a severe lack of funding and growth in poverty which are some of the most important factors impacting student achievement.” (Actually, most studies have shown that the most important factor in student achievement is the effectiveness of the teacher.)

CFT President Josh Pechthalt, avoiding the merits of the case, did his typical “class warfare first, last and always” song and dance. “Wealthy anti-union advocates like David Welch, the funder of this suit, are obscuring the real problems of public education, which are best addressed by restoring funding to programs that ensure student success. It is not coincidental that the law firm he retained is one of corporate America’s leading anti-worker, anti-union firms.” (Increasing funding doesn’t “ensure” anything. Far from it. We have almost tripled education spending in forty years with nothing to show for it.)

A confident Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said she fully expects the California Court of Appeal will return education policy to where it belongs: the legislature. “Every student deserves a highly effective teacher in his or her classroom. The California legislature has worked to provide fair due process protections that ensure quality teachers are in every classroom. Due process prevents good teachers from being fired for bad reasons, and it protects teachers’ professional judgment and academic freedom.” (“Due process long ago morphed into “undue” process; even pedophiles have a hard time getting the ax.)

Perhaps the NEA’s leader’s comments are most galling of all. First she seems to forget that a whole load of ugly Jim Crow laws were eradicated by the courts. I highly doubt that Eskelsen García would have groused about judicial activism in those cases. (By the way, Judge Treu did not make any laws; he just ruled that several laws on the books are unconstitutional.) Another reason her “policy belongs in the legislature” comment is nonsense is that CTA has a lock on that body. With its forced dues scheme, every public school teacher in the Golden State is made to fork over on average more than $1,000 a year, with much of that money going to buy legislators. Parents, kids and taxpayers have no mechanism to match the union’s wildly unfair advantage. So in essence, Eskelsen García is forcing us to play cards – but only with a deck that the unions have carefully stacked. It is commonly said that CTA is an important wing of the Democratic Party in California. It’s more accurate to say that the Democratic Party is really a wing of the powerful California union.

In fact, prior to Eskelsen García’s statement, several California state legislators already had attempted to pass legislation with Vergara in mind.

• Assembly Bill 1044 (Assemblywoman Catherine Baker, R-Dublin) would have eliminated “last-in-first-out” by declaring seniority cannot be the sole factor governing layoffs.

• AB 1248 (Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside) would have extended from two to three years how long it takes for teachers to win tenure and would allow administrators to  revoke tenure if teachers have consecutive poor performance reviews.

• AB 1078 (Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank) would have increased the number of ratings teachers could be assigned and would require educators to be evaluated in part based on student test scores.

Not surprisingly, these bills – modest as they were – never really had a chance. Each one was summarily killed in the CTA owned-and-operated education committee in the State Assembly.

Then there was AB 1495, introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. Whereas existing state law calls for two teacher ratings – satisfactory and unsatisfactory – Weber’s bill would have added a third teacher rating of “needs improvement” to the state’s minimum requirement for evaluations. It would also call on districts to put teachers who are not rated fully satisfactory first in line for professional coaching. This sensible bill garnered support from the likes of EdVoice, Students Matter and StudentsFirst – all Sacramento student advocacy groups. But CTA’s cronies in the Assembly education committee snuffed out this bill too. That prompted Weber, no shrinking violet, to lash out at her fellow Democrats. As reported by LA Weekly’s Hillel Aron, she said, “When I see what’s going on, I’m offended, as a senior member of this committee, who has probably more educational background and experience than all ya’ll put together on top of each other.” She added, “Obviously, it was orchestrated by the teachers union to not let the bill out. It was purely political.” Shirley surely gets it.

There is one bill, however, that the teachers unions have not taken a position on … yet. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, has concocted SB 499. Her teacher evaluation bill requires teachers to be evaluated in part on student progress, including such objective measures as testing, but – and it is a very big but – mandates that the specifics be worked out as part of the union-school district collective bargaining agreement. However, giving unions more negotiating power over evaluations would be a problem said Nancy Espinoza, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association in testimony before the Senate Education Committee a couple of weeks ago. “We are going from developing evaluation standards to negotiating them. That is a tremendous change.” It creates opportunities, she said, for teachers unions “to leverage evaluation standards related to student achievement for gains related to salary” and would likely increase the frequency of an impasse in negotiations “and concerted actions like strikes.”

Also weighing in against the bill is a coalition of groups including Democrats for Education Reform and the California Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to Liu, it mentioned “Offering unions this power affords them the opportunity and incentive to water down teacher evaluations.”

StudentsFirst called the bill misguided, claiming it ignored research on what makes an evaluation effective, and puts the state at risk of losing federal support.

Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, called retaining school boards’ authority over evaluation criteria a non-negotiable “bright-line issue.”

In defending her bill, Liu said that “buy-in from teachers” is critical for evaluations to be useful in helping teachers improve. “Teachers need to be at the table to discuss goals of an evaluation. Their voice needs to be heard and heard loudly.”

But buy-in from teachers is not important in Sacramento. The only buy-in there that matters is from the teachers unions. Liu’s – and every other education bill – is in the unions’ hands. Until the Vergara appeals are exhausted, that is the unpleasant fact of life.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Permanent Disgrace

My encounters with tenure, aka permanence, aka undue process for teachers.

In an article posted recently, Harvard professor and editor-in-chief of Education Next Paul Peterson asks, “Do Teachers Support the Vergara Decision?” More specifically, he discusses tenure, which is on hold in California due to Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling. The tenure statute is the part of the California education code which stipulates that teachers essentially have a job for life if they can survive their first two years on the job, which is really just 16 months of actual work. It is worth noting that what we all commonly refer to as tenure is really a word reserved for college professors. The proper term for K-12 teachers is the more honest – and odious – “permanence.” (I was once corrected by former United Teachers of Los Angeles chief A.J. Duffy when I referred to it incorrectly at a union meeting.)

Peterson alludes to an Education Next poll, the results of which were released earlier this fall, that asked public school teachers to rate their colleagues’ competence on an A to F continuum. While 69 percent gave colleagues in the local school district an A or B, 8 percent said their colleagues deserve a D and 5 percent deserve an F.

This led me to think about my own experience as a middle school teacher in Los Angeles where I toiled for 15 years before retiring in 2009. At any given time, there were about 50 teachers at my school, and most of them, I’d say, were competent-to-good with a few that were exceptional. But there were always a handful of my colleagues who shouldn’t have been allowed in a classroom. Just a few cases in point:

  • AA, an English teacher, was a mean one; she rarely smiled and was antagonistic to a fault. During lunch period on a warm late spring day, she decided she was too pale and headed out to the athletic field to catch some rays at lunch. She proceeded to lie on her stomach, take off her blouse and unstrap her bra. (Ladies, you know how unsightly those tan lines can be!) As AA’s glamor gambit was seen by kids, a few teachers and the plant manager, denial was not an option. However, she did not lose her job. Instead, she was transferred to a nearby elementary school which was run by a woman, known by many as “the principal from hell.” I have no idea what has become of AA, but I’m sure she went on to infect many more kids with her bile and bad judgment.
  • BB was a nice old gentleman and a lawyer with a J.D. Unfortunately, whatever skills he may have possessed in the courtroom did him no good in the classroom, which often resembled a British soccer riot – pure mayhem. As testing coordinator, I had occasion to visit his class several times and invariably regretted not wearing a flak jacket. To maintain order, BB resorted to showing film strips, pretty much daily. The kids didn’t learn much, but at least the janitors had less to clean up at the end of the day. The principal eventually got hip to BB’s act, and knowing she couldn’t get rid of him, pressured him to retire. (Trying to fire him would have taken years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Fortunately, BB took the hint and retired.
  • CC was a PE teacher who had an interesting ritual between classes. He would go to his car, parked on campus, and open his trunk where he kept a large cache of hooch. By the end of the day – every day – CC was obviously pickled. But having attained permanent status, he knew that no matter how slurred his speech may have been, getting plastered daily was an activity he could indulge in without consequence. He finally retired after 37 years and shortly thereafter had a massive stroke and died. Sadly, the union may have rewarded CC with permanent status, but the real world provides no such guarantees.
  • DD was as wacky as they come. She, too, had no control over her classes, and whenever I had any of her third period science kids in my fourth period history class, I had to spend a good 15 minutes peeling them off the walls. The entire staff knew DD was an awful teacher, but axing her was out of the question. Instead, she was sent to the “Peer Assistance Review” (PAR) program – a union created mechanism – which didn’t help a bit. She couldn’t teach; her kids didn’t learn. Her greatest strength as a teacher was at faculty meetings where her loony comments would make us all laugh… very nervously. By the way, DD just renewed her teaching credential for another five years.
  • And then there was EE. One day this eighth grade English teacher allegedly touched a female student inappropriately. There were witnesses, but the student involved would not press charges so they put EE into the district office for a while – the so-called “rubber room” or “teacher jail.” Since firing him was not a viable option, the powers-that-be decided to transfer him to another school, where he apparently fondled another student. So he was sent back to the district office, where he whittled away his paid vacation ogling porn. Busted, he was transferred to yet another school, where he got caught sharing his smut with some of his female students. He was then returned to the district office, where the last I heard, he was waiting for his next assignment, courtesy of his union lawyer.  This was almost ten years ago and I have no idea what EE is doing now or to whom he is doing it, but I do hope its behind closed doors and doesn’t involve teenage girls.

Please keep in mind that I have described just one public school out of about 10,000 in California. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has famously said that if we could get rid of the bottom 5-7 percent of the teaching profession, we could have a world-class system like Finland. If we take Hanushek’s middle number – 6 percent (of 300,000), that means there are 18,000 teachers in the Golden State that should be looking for other means of employment. But they’re not – which means that about 450,000 young minds are getting shortchanged – and worse – year after year. (The reality is that, on average, just ten “permanent” teachers a year in California are let go.)

Right after being termed out as National Education Association president in July, Dennis Van Roekel gave an interview to Education Week and addressed the union’s insistence on maintaining an industrial-style model. He said, “Union members, however, are not going to give up their industrial union rights to enjoy the benefits of being treated like real professionals until they are treated as real professionals.”

He has it backwards. Teachers will never be considered professionals until they take charge and professionalize the field. There are 282,000 teachers in California who are doing an adequate, good or great job and it is incumbent upon them to take the lead and purge the field of the stinkers and pedophiles. Teachers have long wanted to be recognized as professionals, but they will never attain that status as long as they allow the teachers unions to protect incompetents and miscreants. 450,000 kids’ deserve better …much better.

(An abridged version of this post was printed in U-T San Diego on Jan.16th.)

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Vergara: What Comes Next?

Assuming Judge Treu’s rulings survive the appeals process, what will replace the offending statutes?

In last year’s Vergara case, Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s archaic seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes were unconstitutional, adding that the evidence submitted “shocks the conscience.” The judge’s ruling is now being appealed by the state of California, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. Should the decision survive the appeals process, legislators will need to pass new laws to fill the void. In that vein, the Students Matter team that brought the lawsuit has come out with their suggested fixes or “policy pillars.”

Regarding tenure or more accurately “permanence,” their recommendation is solid:

Students Matter believes teachers should earn a designated number of effective or highly effective ratings on annual performance evaluations in order to receive tenure; that a teacher’s permanent status should be portable between school districts; and that permanent status should be able to be rescinded if a teacher receives multiple evaluations showing an ineffective rating.

A million times better than what we have now, but still – why is it that teaching is the only profession – or any job for that matter – that warrants something called “permanence?” In fact, this pillar hedges a bit. It says, “…permanent status should be able to be rescinded…” Well, if permanence can be rescinded if a teacher isn’t effective, then it’s not really permanent, is it?

They also have good ideas about the onerous dismissal statutes.

In order to reduce the extreme cost – in time, money, morale and student learning – of the current teacher dismissal process, while protecting the constitutional rights of both students and teachers, Students Matter recommends explicitly including ineffectiveness as grounds for dismissal and mirroring for teachers the same dismissal process established for classified employees.

In 2014, California took a step forward by passing AB 215, which made it easier to get rid of teachers who are proven guilty of “egregious and immoral conduct.” But there is nothing in the law about getting rid of incompetents. Hence, this pillar hits the mark. Public education should join the rest of the civilized work-world, weeding out those employees who are not getting the job done.

They score a bulls-eye with their suggestion about seniority:

Students Matter recommends explicitly requiring that student learning be the preponderant criterion in layoff decisions and explicitly prohibiting the consideration of seniority as the preponderant criterion.

The current last-in-first-out method of picking winners and losers is an abomination. Length of time on the job should never be the sole reason to keep that job. Would you go to a wonderful doctor who has been practicing for 10 years or a quack who has been killing (or just maiming) his patients for 20 years? The question answers itself. In fact, Dr. Quack’s patient load would tank and he would undoubtedly be forced to find another means of employment. Why not extend this line of thought to the world of education?

So except for the minor quibble with the tenure pillar, the Students Matter suggestions are excellent.

And now for the bad news. Whatever legal changes are made must survive the California state legislature, which is essentially controlled by the California Teachers Association. While the powerful union has yet to comment on the pillars, it goes without saying that it will use every ounce of influence it has to fight them.

Permanence: The union has taken to calling it “due process.” This is laughable – a job for life has nothing to do with legal rights. And union leaders are offering up ridiculous excuses for the existence of tenure. Recently, New York City teacher union boss Michael Mulgrew actually said, “Without tenure, teachers can be disciplined or even fired for speaking out on behalf of the needs of their students.”

Criminy, is that the best he can do?!

Dismissal statutes: Anthony Lombardi, the principal of an elementary school in New York City, bluntly stated that American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten “… would protect a dead body in the classroom. That’s her job.” Well that may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s true that people who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children are almost never fired.

In California, due to the union-orchestrated dismissal statutes, on average just two “permanent” teachers a year lose their job due to incompetence. That’s two bad apples out of about 300,000. In my almost 30 years in the classroom, there were always at least two teachers at my school alone who should have been let go. Also, it’s ridiculously expensive to get a teacher out the door. Between 2000 and 2010, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven teachers (out of over 30,000) for poor classroom performance. Only four were let go during that time.

Seniority: Union leaders are quite incoherent in this area. “Saving your jobs would mean that more experienced teachers would lose theirs,” UTLA president A.J. Duffy told a group of young teachers at Liechty Middle School in 2009. “Seniority is the only fair way to do it . . . and any exception would be an act of disloyalty.” The California Federation of Teachers website claims that “Seniority is the only fair, transparent way to administer layoffs. It ensures equal treatment for all teachers…”

Problem is that not all teachers deserve equal treatment. The great and good should be treated better than the mediocre and awful.

Interestingly, a recent survey funded by Teach Plus, an organization that strives to ensure that urban children have access to effective educators, found that 69 percent of teachers in California agreed that “tenure protected an ineffective colleague who should have been dismissed but wasn’t.” But it also found that 81 percent said that “tenure was important to them personally.” In brief, the teachers polled came down somewhere in between the Students Matter pillars and traditional union hardline resistance to change. You can access the survey here.

Will the unions listen to their more moderate members and act accordingly? Don’t bet on it.

Will the unions besiege their cronies in Sacramento to ignore the Students Matter fixes? Most assuredly.

What can you do? Send letters and emails to your state legislators, and implore them to do right by the children of California. Only when enough good people stand up to the destructive agenda of the teachers unions will public education take a great leap forward.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Life After Deasy

It was only a matter of time before the Los Angeles school chief was run out of town.

John Deasy is the latest to exit the fast-moving revolving door known as Los Angeles School Superintendent. The job – really an impossible one – saw Roy Romer replace Ray Cortines in 2001. Romer in turn was replaced by David Brewer in 2006, who was replaced by Cortines in 2009, who was replaced by Deasy in 2011. Now the octogenarian Cortines is back for a third stint as chief – for how long is anyone’s guess. Deasy is the fourth California superintendent in the last two years to be driven from a job that has the shelf life of homogenized milk.

Since his resignation on October 16th, much has been written about Deasy, who wore his good and bad traits on his sleeve. He admittedly had little use for political niceties, and at times seemed to enjoy getting up in people’s faces. As Doug McIntyre wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News, “Even Deasy’s supporters acknowledge he can be prickly, humorless, stubborn and thin-skinned.” Others have described him as bull-headed and impatient. School board member Steve Zimmer pointed out that he frequently used a sledgehammer – sometimes joyfully so – where a scalpel would have sufficed. Deasy’s heavy-handedness is exemplified by the Miramonte fiasco. Mark Berndt, a veteran teacher, was removed from the classroom after feeding his second graders cookies laced with his semen. At the same time, a colleague at the school was accused of inappropriately touching a female student. Instead of launching an immediate internal investigation to ferret out other possible miscreants, Deasy further destabilized the school and angered parents by removing every teacher from the campus, without any indication that others were in any way involved.

Deasy had other troubles. There was the wildly ambitious and ultimately bungled $1 billion iPad program in which he sought to put a computer in the hands of every student in the district. The rollout began amid confusion over whether or not students would be allowed to take the devices home and who’d be held responsible if they were lost or stolen. Then, upon receiving the computers, many students easily breached their security locks and began using the devices for non-school-related purposes. Additionally, many were outraged over the program’s bloated billion-dollar price tag. Deasy mercifully halted the process only after emails revealed he had discussed a possible contract with Apple before the bidding even started.

Then there is the “MiSiS crisis,” which came about when an online school information system was rushed into place prematurely, resulting in thousands of students being left with no class schedules. It’s hard to make the Obamacare rollout look good by comparison, but somehow Deasy and LAUSD accomplished it.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles was especially brutal toward Deasy. In April, 2013, it mounted “Whoopsie Deasy,” a campaign that sought to get rid of the controversial chief. The union encouraged teachers to give the superintendent a “no-confidence” vote, listing 10 reasons it considered Deasy a menace to the teaching profession. Their case included the fact that teachers had not received a raise in six years, that “testing was overtaking teaching” and that the superintendent was too cozy with “billionaire outsiders.” The poll clearly resonated with union members who delivered the no-confidence vote by a margin of 10 to 1.

But the real reason that UTLA regularly hammered the superintendent and his policies was the same reason the reformers supported him. He wanted to shake up the sclerotic system and viewed the union and its cronies on the school board as impediments to his pro-child agenda.

Deasy’s supporters quickly brushed the negatives aside and pointed to all the good he did for the district. He tried to bring teacher evaluations into the 21st Century. He championed charter schools as a way to let kids escape from district failure factories. He was a supporter of the Parent Trigger, which empowers parents to force a change of governance if a school is underperforming. He testified for the plaintiffs in the Vergara case, where Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s archaic seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes were unconstitutional, adding that the evidence submitted “shocks the conscience.”

Reformers also give Deasy credit for the district’s improved test results but this argument is problematic. The test scores did go up a little, but it’s difficult to pinpoint just what factors led to the small increase. A recent study by The Brookings Institution showed that superintendents on average account for just “0.3 percent of student differences in achievement.”

Deasy has also been credited with a lower dropout rate. But again, it’s hard to know what the truth is. In April 2013, LAUSD reported a 66 percent grad rate. Then earlier this month, the district proudly announced it was up to 77 percent. Sounds impressive, right?

Well, not really.

It is 77 percent if you don’t include the students who couldn’t hack a district school and were placed in what are euphemistically called “alternative schools” where the grad rate can be as low as 5 percent. This is tantamount to saying that Joe Smith’s batting average is .300 – if you don’t count the 50 times he struck out. Also not included in the data are the “invisible dropouts” – those who never set foot in a high school. They are not counted as high school dropouts because, well, they never dropped in. Nevertheless, they are dropouts. Hence, we need to seriously rework the way we measure graduation rates before we can attribute credit to anyone for better numbers.

Devil or angel, Deasy’s troubles are not unique. Big city superintendents have faced similar daunting tasks and invariably wind up quitting or getting fired within a few short years of accepting the job. The most dramatic example of this pattern was the fiery three-year stint of reformer Michelle Rhee had in Washington D.C. In fact, referring to the LA superintendent position, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told LA School Report, “I don’t know a single person on earth who would want that terrible job. It won’t be a change agent. It will be a status quo candidate who will make life pleasant for himself by enjoying all the wrapping of the superintendency and being smart enough not to try and change a thing.”

The question then becomes, “Is LAUSD manageable at all?” Is a district that includes 31 smaller cities covering 720 square miles with 655,000 students who speak 87 languages, taught by 32,000 teachers (plus a support staff of 35,000) too big not to fail?

One possible solution is to break up the behemoth district – hardly a new idea; it’s been floating around for years. The northern part of the city, the San Fernando Valley, tried to break away in 2000. Then, in 2004, mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg said that his first priority, if elected, would be to lead “a task force of teachers, parents, principals and other experts to come up with a plan to create smaller, community-based districts.” In 2006, state Assemblyman Keith Richman introduced legislation to split “the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District into more than a dozen smaller districts, with the break-up overseen by a nine-member commission of mayors from the 27 cities that the district serves, the state superintendent of public instruction and university professors.” Most recently, Marc Litchman, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Brad Sherman for the 30th Congressional District in Los Angeles, said the first bill he would introduce would be to split up L.A. Unified. “The schools have to perform, and I think we’ve all been through this for quite some time. They’re not performing to the level we all hoped they would. In Los Angeles, the biggest barrier to that is the school district,” he said.

The problem with the dissolution idea is that it would result in power being ceded by those currently in charge. The LA school board and the teachers union will fight tooth and claw to keep the mammoth school district intact – no matter how unmanageable and dysfunctional it is.

Another change scenario is underway in New Orleans. Last month, the city became the country’s first all-charter district. Charter schools are public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars but run by largely independent boards. These schools get to avoid most of the red tape and union influence typical in a district contract. Teachers unions don’t have much of a presence in NOLA. The United Teachers of New Orleans, which had 5,800 members before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has dwindled down to 530. The small size and independent nature of charter schools is a disincentive to labor organizers. “The same amount of effort that it takes to negotiate a contract with a district, you spend on one school,” a union leader in Louisiana said. Of course, teachers could exercise a “local only” option which would give them greater control over their own destiny, be more child-friendly and excludes costly membership in a state and national affiliate.

Unfortunately, without a cataclysmic act of nature wreaking havoc on Los Angeles, this scenario too would run up against massive resistance from all the usual suspects. It would take a herculean effort by maverick legislators or a well-funded ballot initiative to make an all-charter district a reality.

So until then, we will suffer along with a yet-to-be-named superintendent who will either be a Deasy-type provocateur, burning out after a short time or, more likely, we will be treated to a make-nice type who will not rock the LAUSD boat. The losers, as always, will be the children who could have better but for the self-serving demands of the grown-ups captaining a ship that is constantly taking on water.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Bad Week for Teachers Unions

These days, the teachers unions have landed on the wrong side of judges, teachers, the general public and just about everyone else whose lives they touch.

Seems like the teachers unions are getting it from all sides these days. In a Wall Street Journal piece, the writers note that the percentage of elementary and secondary teachers who are union members is down about 20 percent since 1988. But as private and charter schools proliferate and the right-to-work movement grows, the last 26 years will look like the good old days.

Big Apple Kerfuffle

In response to the death of Eric Garner while in New York Police Department custody, United Federation of Teachers command central decided to join forces with Al Sharpton in blaming the police. However, New York City teachers responded by giving UFT president Michael Mulgrew a one-finger salute, and on the first day of school last week teachers all over the city wore pro-cop T-shirts. This independent streak was way over the top for Boss Mulgrew, whose union emailed a brief warning, “…as public employees, one must remain objective at all times.”

Teachers union members remain objective?!! WHAT!!! This followed UFT’s sponsorship of an Al Sharpton rally in support of Mike Brown, who died while in police custody in Ferguson, MO.

Now, how teachers should respond to non-education-related community events is a discussion for another day; the issue here is the union’s hypocrisy. But then again, Mulgrew has always shot from the hip … and as often as not, the bullet has wound up piercing his shoe. Most recently, despite teacher misgivings with Common Core, the union president decided that the standards were worthy. And at the American Federation of Teachers convention last month, in classic thug style, he closed with these pearls,

If someone takes something from me, I’m going to grab it right back out of their cold, twisted, sick hands and say it is mine! You do not take what is mine! And I’m going to punch you in the face and push you in the dirt because this is the teachers! These are our tools and you sick people need to deal with us and the children that we teach. Thank you very much!

If they ever decide to recast Goodfellas, Mulgrew is a shoo-in for the Joe Pesci role. (Extreme profanity alert.)

Michigan Shenanigans

After Michigan went right-to-work in 2012, the Michigan Education Association decided to play hardball. Most teachers didn’t know that the only period they could resign from the union was when most of them weren’t paying attention to school or union matters – in August. Some teachers sent in their resignation notice before the union-mandated allotted time and thought they’d legitimately opted out and stopped paying dues. However, they were soon faced with threats that unless they paid up, the union would do its best to damage their credit ratings. But the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation took the teachers’ side and brought suit against the union. Then, just last Tuesday administrative law judge Julia Stern recommended that the “ Employment Relations Commission order the Michigan Education Association to no longer limit school employees to leaving the union solely in August of each year. She said the law that took effect last year incorporated a federal law interpreted to give public employees the ability to leave their union anytime.”

Furious with the decision, the union went into spin-mode to divert attention from it, triumphantly pointing to the fact that only 5,000 teachers (out of 110,000 total) had resigned during the August window. But as Mike Antonucci notes, the bigger picture is not so rosy. “In 2008-09, the union had 129,000 active members. The latest loss brings that number down to 106,000 – a drop of almost 18 percent.” Also, as more contracts expire, more teachers will have the opportunity to disengage from the union. Additionally, as teachers see that the world of their non-unionized colleagues does not come to an end without Big Daddy, many will realize that the $1,000+ dues they pay on a yearly basis could be much better spent elsewhere.

Sophistry Vergara

Hardly a surprise, but immediately following Judge Rolf Treu’s final decision in the Vergara case, which affirmed his original one, the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and Governor Jerry Brown (under pressure from his biggest political backers – the unions) filed an appeal. In a dual release, the unions trotted out the usual off-subject malarkey in an attempt to convince people of the evil intent of the suit.

All along it’s been clear to us that this lawsuit is baseless, meritless, and masterminded by self-interested individuals with corporate education reform agendas that are veiled by a proclamation of student interest.

The Vergara ruling makes clear that Judge Treu failed to engage the evidence presented in court by education experts and school superintendents who testified that teacher rights are not impediments to well-run schools and districts.

He also failed to take into account the impact of underfunding, poverty, growing inequality, and lack of decent jobs in the communities surrounding our schools….

… this ruling doesn’t address any of the real solutions to problems facing public education, solutions such as adequate funding, peer assistance and review programs for struggling teachers, and lower class sizes.

Blah, blah, blah.

While this kind of union spin has traditionally been successful, the general public at long last has become hip to it. In an Education Next  poll released in August concerning the issue of tenure – a major part of the Vergara suit,

… Survey respondents favor ending tenure by a 2-to-1 ratio. By about the same ratio, the public also thinks that if tenure is awarded, it should be based in part on how well the teacher’s students perform in the classroom. Only 9% of the public agrees with current practice in most states, the policy of granting teachers tenure without taking student performance into account.

Fair Share Flim-Flam Fades

Every year around Labor Day, Gallup polls Americans on their attitudes toward labor unions. This year a question was added about right-to-work laws, and the responses were not good news for the forced-union crowd. As Mike Antonucci writes,

The poll finds 82% of Americans agreeing that ‘no American should be required to join any private organization, like a labor union, against his will,’ a position advanced by right-to-work proponents. Pro-union forces partly oppose right-to-work laws because of the ‘free-rider’ problem, with non-union workers benefitting as much as union workers when unions negotiate pay and benefit increases with employers. But by 64% to 32%, Americans disagree that workers should ‘have to join and pay dues to give the union financial support’ because ‘all workers share the gains won by the labor union.’

The teachers unions are starting to remind me of a man at sea flailing away for help, but the courts, the general public and even many of their own members are not not throwing out a life raft. Perhaps Mr. Mulgrew needs to start breaking some legs. Nothing else seems to be working.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Post-Vergara Rumblings

The Vergara decision is three weeks old – and due to the teachers unions’ appeal, nothing has changed. Or has it?

Because Judge Rolf Treu has placed a stay on his Vergara ruling pending the outcome of the teachers unions’ appeal, the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes are still alive and well in California. However, there already has been some fallout engendered by the decision.

Introduced in February of this year, AB 1619 would have required school districts with fewer than 250 students to grant tenure to teachers after three years. Amazingly the unions had not, until earlier this year, tried to sink their hooks into these smaller districts that have no tenure laws at all. The bill, cosponsored by the California Teachers Association (surprise!) and Lorena Gonzalez, former leader of the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council, sailed through the State Assembly but hadn’t made its way out of the Senate Education Committee. As reported by LA School Report, “Paul Ochoa, an aide to Gonzalez …, said the bill ‘will not move forward this year,’ but he was uncertain if Gonzalez would try again next year.” Teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci recently observed that there’s no doubt that “had it not been for the Vergara ruling, not only would AB 1619 have passed already, but we probably wouldn’t have even heard a word about it.”

While California is wrestling with the ramifications of Vergara, New York has inaugurated a similar lawsuit. Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor who has become involved with education reform of late, launched the Partnership for Educational Justice in December 2013. Inspired by Vergara, she has identified six children who have agreed to serve as plaintiffs, arguing they “suffered from laws making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers.”

Ms. Brown wants a verdict in her group’s case to spur legislators to come up with better education policies. ‘My hope is this would be a wake-up call to politicians who failed to solve these problems for years,’ she said.

Her team has been meeting with parents to find plaintiffs. One is Jada Williams in Rochester, who wrote a seventh-grade essay complaining about teachers who she said gave no real instruction and failed to manage unruly students. Her mother, Carla, said in an interview: ‘When a child in class is educationally neglected, that’s a criminal act.’

David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed Students Matter, the advocacy group that filed the Vergara suit, has given Ms. Brown guidance, and came to a meeting of about 30 people at her apartment in April to discuss it, she said. A mother of two children in private school, Ms. Campbell said she gave seed money to the Partnership for Educational Justice. She declined to disclose other donors. She has applied for nonprofit status.

Shortly after the Vergara verdict, the USC Rossier School of Education and Stanford-based Policy Analysis for California Education conducted a poll and found

… that two-thirds of voters (68 percent) agree that the state should do away with “Last In, First Out,” a policy that requires the newest K-12 teachers be laid off first, regardless of merit. Just 17 percent said California should continue to conduct teacher layoffs in order of seniority….

California voters also largely opposed the state’s tenure laws for public school teachers, according to the poll. Six in 10 California voters said teachers should not continue to receive tenure, as it makes firing bad teachers difficult. Twenty-five percent of voters said the state should keep tenure for public school teachers to provide them job protections and the freedom to teach potentially controversial topics without fear of reprisals.

When asked specifically about the timeline to tenure — which can be awarded after as little as 18 months in the classroom — 38 percent said two years is too soon to award tenure, and 35 percent said public school teachers shouldn’t receive tenure at all, the poll showed. Seventeen percent of voters said two years was the “right amount of time” to earn tenure, and 4 percent said two years was too long, according to the poll.

Perhaps most interestingly, the poll showed that when asked about California’s teachers unions,

… 49 percent of voters said they have a “somewhat or very negative” impact on the quality of K-12 education, with 31 percent saying unions have a “somewhat or very positive” impact.

Then, for sheer entertainment value, we have the teachers unions’ responses to the ruling and its aftermath, bloviating about the turn of events every time a microphone is within harrumphing range. In an obvious slap at Campbell Brown, New York State United Teachers president Karen Magee nonsensically claimed that, “If hedge fund millionaires and celebrity dilettantes were truly interested in guaranteeing students a quality education, they would join parents and unions in fighting for fair funding for all children, not just the affluent.”

The funding canard doesn’t even merit a response. And if Magee has issues with “celebrity dilettantes,” why didn’t she pillory Matt Damon for statements he made supporting tenure at an SOS rally in 2011? I guess, for her, some celebrity dilettantes are more equal than others.

Responding to the Vergara decision, National Education Association leader Dennis Van Roekel informs us that, “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.”

His might as well have said, “The cow jumped over the moon” for all the sense he made. Getting rid of incompetent and criminal teachers and trying to save the hides of young teachers victimized by last in/first out rules is what the case was about. Privatization and an “ideological agenda?” Not even close. Actually it’s the teachers unions’ “ideological agenda” that is helping to spur the very school choice movement that Van Roekel and other union leaders are forever decrying.

And of course American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten weighed in, claiming that the decision “strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice.” Oh please. Teachers have plenty of “voice” except maybe when they run afoul of the union for not toeing the party line. Effective teachers won’t be affected by the Vergara decision, though some pedophiles’ and incompetents’ livelihoods may be cut short.

Mike Antonucci analyzed the national and California teacher union leaders’ responses to the Vergara decision and noted that none of them used the words “tenure” or “seniority.” He writes,

My view of all this is that the unions will, as they have in the past, score well with the general public when attacking evil corporate puppetmasters. But judging from the media reports of the Vergara ruling – almost all of which prominently use ‘seniority’ and ‘tenure’ – they will have an uphill battle altering the public perception of protecting bad teachers.

If the USC poll is any indication, the Vergara trial – if nothing else – has been a public relations disaster for the unions. Translating that into meaningful political change is going to be the tricky part. And so, the battle continues.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

The Vergara Battle Has Been Won…

… but the war is just beginning. Despite a landmark education decision in California favoring children over teachers unions, how much will really change?

On June 10th, Judge Rolf Treu issued an unequivocal decision in the Students Matter (Vergara v California) case which revolved around the tenure, dismissal and seniority statutes in California’s education code. In his 16-page ruling – a resounding victory for students and a crushing defeat for the teachers unions – Judge Treu did not mince words. He found that the plaintiffs met their burden of proof on all the issues, writing, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience…” He concluded with, “All Challenged Statutes are found unconstitutional….”

Tenure

While the judge’s decision on this subject was crystal clear, much of the media’s responses have been – to paraphrase Alan Greenspan – irrationally exuberant. The New York Times headline – hardly an isolated example – blared “Judge Rejects Teacher Tenure for California.”

Hardly. The judge ruled that letting teachers attain tenure after only two years – really 16 months – is unfair to both students and teachers. But in no way did he reject tenure out of hand; he merely pointed out that California was one of only five states to offer tenure or permanent status in two years or less. He went on to say that other states do it better, noting that the probationary period in 41 states is three to five years. (The other four states don’t allow tenure at all.)

What will a new tenure law look like? Given the California Teachers Association’s unbridled clout in the state legislature, we very well could wind up with a three year tenure period instead of two. A slight improvement, but hardly a game-changer.

Dismissal Statutes

The judge recognized that teachers certainly deserve due process rights, but indicated that the current dismissal statutes provide über due process. He acknowledged that “the number of grossly ineffective teachers has a direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students, now and well into the future for as long as said teachers hold their positions.”

Just what is that “significant number?” If each “grossly ineffective” teacher (the defense claims this applies to one to three percent of the profession) has 25 students in his class, it means that between 68,750 and 206,250 flesh-and-blood school children are getting little or no education every year. And astonishingly, teachers who are ineffective but not “grossly” so were not even considered. I can hear the conversation at a local public school:

Parent: I understand that my son is going to have an ineffective teacher this year.

Principal: That’s correct, ma’am, but not to worry, he is not “grossly” ineffective.

Parent: Sir, would you go to a surgeon who is known to remove appendixes but leaves the scalpel behind? Or a lawyer whose innocent clients regularly wind up in the slammer. Or an auto mechanic who puts brake fluid in your radiator?

Principal: Of course not, but those occupations are not unionized. Be grateful that your child’s teacher is just pretty bad and not one of the “grossly ineffective” ones.

Parent: Ah, of course! How silly of me not to realize that my child’s education is not really the priority of a unionized public school!

There is some good news here, however: AB 215, with the backing of reformers and the teachers unions, would seem to be a done deal. Though weak on dismissing incompetent teachers, the bill would at least shorten the interminable process to deal with teachers accused of egregious behavior. But getting rid of the merely ineffective ones will continue to be a gory battle with CTA leaning on the state legislature to make only minimal adjustments to the old statutes while trying to convince the court that the improvements are substantive.

Seniority

As things stand now in the Golden State (with very rare exceptions), if layoffs are necessary, decisions are made by a quality-blind last in/first out (LIFO) system. The judge mentioned that California is just one of ten states where “seniority is the sole factor or one that must be considered.” If the LIFO statute is removed from the education code, what is the probable scenario? The decision could be left to each individual school district, but again, given CTA’s influence in the state legislature, we will undoubtedly have a statewide law. Bill Lucia, president of Sacramento-based advocacy group EdVoice, suggests various options might be considered that “include elements of a seniority system but with exceptions made for excellent teachers or permanent teachers willing to serve in hard-to-staff schools.” And if that arrangement becomes reality, how should excellence be quantified? Standardized tests? Principal evaluation? Outsider evaluation? Should parents have a say? Some or all the above? A long ignored law in California which stipulates that a teacher’s evaluation must be based at least in part on how well her students perform on state tests should help, but due to the teachers unions’ hardcore stance against using student performance to measure teacher effectiveness, the conflict to replace LIFO will be a bloody one as well.

What’s next?

Nothing for now. While the decision is temporary and will not be final for another few weeks, the judge is unlikely to alter or modify it. And of course the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have already announced that they are appealing the decision, an option also being weighed by the state of California. In the meantime, Judge Treu placed a stay on the ruling pending a decision by the California Court of Appeal. The case will undoubtedly make its way to the California Supreme Court. Thus, a final resolution could be years away. A denial of the appeal in the lower court, however, could remove the stay and Treu’s decision would have to be honored – at least temporarily – even if there is an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The educational floodgates have been opened by Judge Treu. How everything will eventually play out is anybody’s guess, but one thing is certain – the war between teachers unions and the children of California is far from over.

(Prosecutor Marcellus McRae’s closing argument is riveting and provides a good overview of the case.)

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.