The nation’s educational system could undergo a policy change in tenure after a California judge ruled Tuesday that five laws governing the way California teachers are hired and fired are unconstitutional. The decision could cause ripple effect in school districts across the country.
Judge Rolf M. Treu decided in favor of nine public school students who filed a suit in the State of California for schools to change tenure rules, which prevented schools from eliminating incompetent teachers. He stated that there is no arguing that there is a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers presently active in California classrooms.
Current California tenure laws allow teachers with more seniority, effective or not, to remain employed while newer teachers of better quality fall victim to layoffs. The rules also make it difficult to let go of teachers. L.A. Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said it can take an average of more than two years to fire an incompetent tenured teacher. Sometimes it can take up to 10 years and cost between $250,000 and $450,000.
The judge confirmed the plaintiffs’ claims that the current California teacher tenure system served to discriminate against low-income and minority students, and is therefore unconstitutional. The laws deny students access to quality public education by employing and retaining ineffective teachers.
In a statement, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed support for tenure law changes. Duncan said the plaintiffs are just nine students out of millions in the U.S. who are disadvantaged by laws, systems and practices that fail to identify, support, and match the best teachers with the neediest students, adding that the ruling is a “mandate to fix these problems.”
The suit, Vergara v. California, began when Beatriz Vergara and eight other students decided to fight for a better education. The students said their teachers did not know how to manage their classrooms, letting them get out of hand, and arrived to class unprepared. With the help of Students Matter, a Silicon Valley-based student advocacy organization, the students brought the suit to trial.
The students feel the ruling was a victory. “Being a kid, sometimes it’s easy to feel like your voice is not heard,” said Julia Macias, one of the nine plaintiffs. “Today, I am glad I did not stay quiet. I’m glad that with the support of my parents I was able to stand up for my right to a great education.”
The lawsuit could begin a nationwide movement to change tenure laws from a last-in, first-out policy that favors seniority over ability during layoffs, and grants teachers permanent job security before demonstrating that they are capable of providing students with quality education. In recent years, several states have attempted to raise standards for teachers to qualify for such benefits or eliminate them altogether.
California’s two largest teachers unions, the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association, plan to fight the decision. According to their attorneys, poor management is responsible for districts failing to identify and eliminate incompetent instructors rather than the tenure laws.
The judge delayed implementation of the ruling pending appeals. Objections to the ruling must be filed within 15 days or the judge’s ruling that California teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional will become permanent.
By Brandi M. Fleeks