The decision of a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge early this month in the “Vergara case,” finding California’s teacher tenure and retention rules unconstitutional, must have been a real shocker for the California Teachers’ Association (“CTA”). Yet the decision, which is subject to appeal, is based in part on the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in the historic “Brown vs, Board of Education” case in 1954, establishing that every child is entitled to equality in education, will likely have implications beyond California, as school districts across the country reconsider how they retain and discipline bad teachers who deliver poor quality education.
Since 2000, the California teachers’ union has become the biggest lobbying interest in the state, dwarfing all of Chevron’s, AT and T’s, and the California Chamber of Commerce’s lobbying efforts combined. The union has spent more than $320 million to influence elections and lobby for legislation favorable to its members, and has won about every battle. It was the critical force in the election of the current state Superintendent of Public Instruction, who develops many job place rules for local school districts across the state, and CTA has donated and is donating millions to elect Jerry Brown the Governor. In the meantime, while teacher pay is at about the highest in the nation in California, student performance on achievement tests is around the lowest.
Among the laws the union has supported are those granting permanent employment status (teacher tenure) after less than two years on the job; special procedural rules dubbed über due process for union members making it almost impossible for school districts to discipline bad teachers; and “last-in, first-out” for teacher layoffs, assuring more senior teachers keep their jobs regardless of competence when school districts must lay-off employees. As a result of the Judge’s ruling in Vergara, all those state statutes have been enjoined as unconstitutional, because the facts showed they resulted in an unequal poor quality of education for lower-income and minority students.
As a public policy issue, teacher tenure and discipline had not been the focus of much attention until recently. But teacher discipline came to a head after a well-publicized sex-abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and in February of 2012, the Superintendent initiated a “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in 100 teachers district-wide being temporarily sidelined for misconduct, and acceptance of another 200 resignations of teachers outside the administrative process with charges pending. Yet actual dismissal of California teachers has been rare, less than 10 teachers a year out of 300,000, because under state law, approval was required by an arcane three-person administrative panel, after lengthy and expensive hearings, that were considered “union friendly.” Those same rules were found in the Vergara case last week to be a “tortuous process” that required too much time and expense and that unconstitutionally resulted in many children, especially lower-income minorities, receiving a poor quality education from bad teachers.
Just as Brown vs. Board of Education stands for the proposition that public education facilities separated by race are inherently unequal, the Vergara decision extends Brown’s reasoning to find that children are also entitled to an equal quality of education. The Judge found after hearing evidence that there were between 2,750 and 8,250 “grossly ineffective” teachers in the system as a result of California’s union-backed teacher tenure and discipline rules, and that these bad teachers had a “direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students,” threatening the children’s futures. When quality of education suffers as a result of state rules that favor a significant number of “grossly ineffective teachers” who have the benefit of seniority, as against new teacher employees who may be more competent and effective, those laws unconstitutionally operate to undermine a child’s ability to succeed in school.
California’s liberal rules on tenure, now enjoined, are matched by only five other states. But the notion that children are not only entitled to equal facilities but also to equal quality of education has serious ramifications for school districts nationwide in underperforming schools where test scores are very low and bad teachers rely on permanent employment status. Now, the teachers’ union and its members cannot just expect that so-called “work place rules” favoring ineffective teachers can continue to permanently protect their jobs, and that is why the ruling in the Vergara case is so important for education reform, and to our nation’s kids and their futures.
James V. Lacy’s first book, Taxifornia, is available at Amazon.com.