California teacher tenure rules are in serious jeopardy now that a judge has labeled them “unconstitutional.” In his controversial decision, Judge Rolf Treu wrote, “Both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.”
Nine public school students, with the help of the anti-union organization Students Matter, sued the state to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. Judge Treu named a few specific reasons why he considered the existing teacher tenure procedure unfair:
- Seniority gets used as the sole factor during lay-offs period.
- Tenure is awarded too quickly (just two years) before a teacher’s long-term potential and skills can be evaluated accurately.
- Firing an incompetent tenured teacher is an extremely difficult process.
The crux of Treu’s decision, however, rested in the fact that the majority of incompetent teachers were at schools with low-income students. Low-income students, he argued, have the constitutional right to an equal education, and tenure laws are standing in the way. “Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” said Judge Treu. “It shocks the conscience.”
Joshua Pechthalt, the head of the California Federation of Teachers, expressed his disappointment in the verdict. “We believe the judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric and one of American’s finest corporate law firms that set out to scapegoat teachers for the real problems that exist in public education,” said Pechthalt.
Meanwhile, John Deasy, the superintendent of Los Angeles schools, supported this change in regulations. In court, he testified that it can take administrators as many as 10 years and nearly half a million dollars to dismiss a “bad” tenured teacher due to the existing protections.
Although declaring tenure rules unconstitutional will obviously have a monumental effect on public education in California, it is too soon to see precisely how it will shake out in the months ahead. Immediately, teachers’ unions declared that they would appeal the ruling. Meanwhile, California’s governor and attorney general said they will confer on the verdict before deciding whether to pursue an appeal on their end.
Remarkably, both the plaintiffs and defendants in this case agreed that bad teachers exist in the public educational system and that they disadvantage low-income students. What each side disputed was whether altering existing tenure procedure would actually improve the system.
Indeed, the situation seems much more complicated than just lousy teachers harming students. Another lawsuit making its way through California’s courts blames the high rate of teacher turnover, not tenure, for providing low-income students with an unequal education. Getting rid of some teachers does nothing if there isn’t a supply of more qualified teachers waiting to take their place.
Ultimately, is it fair to take away the union protections of all educational professionals in order to deal with the small percentage of bad ones? Moreover, will weakening the job security for an already notoriously underpaid and under-respected field do anything to help attract higher quality candidates to teaching?