… 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….”
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.
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.
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.
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.