Tenure Tremors in California
Though better than the current law, a new tenure bill doesn’t go nearly far enough.
As things stand, k-12 public school teachers in California are essentially guaranteed lifetime employment if they can get through their first two years on the job. This puts a lot of pressure on principals, as they must decide by March of a teacher’s second year – after just 16 actual teaching months – whether or not someone is good enough to spend their professional career influencing hundreds, and in many cases thousands, of young minds. About 98 percent of all teachers who seek tenure receive it in the Golden State.
There have been several attempts to tweak tenure or, more accurately, “permanent employment status.” In 2005, a ballot initiative would have extended the time it takes for a teacher to become a permanent employee from two to five years. But Prop. 74 went down to defeat, primarily because the California Teachers Association fought it tooth and nail, claiming it was an “attack on teacher due process.” (Wrong! As we have seen time and again, permanent status actually gives teachers “undue process.”)
Then, in 2012, along came Vergara v. California. The plaintiffs in this case argued that tenure (in concert with the seniority and dismissal statutes) causes greater harm to minority and economically disadvantaged populations because their schools “have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers.” So it was a case of a kid’s right to a good education v. an adult’s right to a job, and after going through the courts the unions ultimately won and California’s children were the big losers.
But before the State Supreme Court officially put the kibosh on Vergara, Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) introduced Assembly Bill 934 in February, 2016. As originally written, the bill would have placed poorly performing teachers in a program that offers professional support, though if they received a second 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.
At first, CTA opposed Bonilla’s bill on the basis that it “would make education an incredibly insecure profession.” Then, ratcheting up its propaganda, the union trotted out its standard diversionary tactics in proclaiming, “Corporate millionaires and special interests have mounted an all-out assault on educators by attempting to do away with laws protecting teachers from arbitrary firings, providing transparency in layoff decisions and supporting due process rights.”
Due to CTA arm-twisting, the bill was eviscerated so badly that most of its original supporters decided the cure had become worse than the disease, and it was eventually euthanized by the Senate Education Committee.
The latest attempt to rework teacher permanence comes from California State Assemblywoman Shirley Weber. With the sponsorship of Teach Plus and Educators for Excellence, two teacher-led activist organizations, the San Diego Democrat has introduced AB 1220, legislation that would extend the current time it takes to attain permanent status from two years to three. The bill would also allow some teachers who don’t meet the requirements in three years an extra year or two in which they could get additional mentoring and be the recipient of other professional development resources.
So depending on the teacher’s effectiveness, the tenure perk would be moved from two to three, four or five years. As things stand now, a principal may not want to take a chance on a teacher who is not doing well in his first two years. But the added time frame might see that teacher blossom…or it might not. Hence, it’s a crapshoot for kids.
The only response from the teachers unions thus far comes from California Federation of Teachers president Josh Pechthalt, who says that the bill “really misses the boat in terms of what is needed to improve or make sure that beginning teachers are prepared and ready to assume a classroom.”
However union leaders may try to disparage the bill, it is hardly radical, as 42 states set tenure at three or more years. In fact, three states don’t offer tenure at all, which brings up the question of why do teachers need permanent status? Doctors, lawyers, bricklayers, carpenters and U.S. presidents have no such entitlements. Why teachers? The stock teacher unionista response these days is that permanent status is important “so that I can advocate for my students without fear of losing my job.” This statement has been making the rounds for a while now and is just plain silly. What kind of teacher or principal would not “advocate for their students?” In fact, to really advocate for your students, you should demand an end to permanence. Period. Thousands of students stuck with lemons, not to mention their parents and taxpayers, would be much better off.
There is no legitimate reason why we need a law on the books which enables just 2 teachers a year out of about 300,000 to be fired for incompetence, most especially in a state where student NAEP scores languish at the bottom of the barrel. And this is the biggest problem with AB 1220. What do you do with a burned out teacher who, after 20 years in the classroom, is just going through the motions, spending the day ignoring his students as he dreams of retiring to a beach in Hawaii in ten years on his big fat defined benefit pension? The answer is that you can’t do a damn thing.
That said, AB 1220 is better than the law on the books and should be supported…in its current uneviscerated form. But we really need to go much further and promote a system where a teacher must earn his right to stay on the job throughout his career… just like any other professional.
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.