California Judge Deems Teacher Tenure “Unconstitutional”

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?



Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

Tenure means that schools can't fire bad teachers.

Sandra B.
Sandra B3 years ago

Two main reasons for tenure - 1. Teachers can stand up for what is safe needed for their students without fear of being fired. 2. Guarantee of job security when you agree to take such a low paying job. They still can be fired with documented wrong doing. School Superintendants are voted into office - which means they can be bought - or could care less about the children's needs. We already have a shortage of teachers in many parts of the country, the last thing we need is for the good teachers to feel that it is just not worth it to work for so little with no job security when they could find many other higher paying jobs that would be less stressful. Why do so may in the US treat teachers like they are the problem - when most have always been the solution?..........

Erin Charnow
Erin Charnow3 years ago

The reason teachers have tenure is so a teacher can keep their job even if they disagree with the administration at their school. Administrators can fire a tenured teacher they just have to go through due-process. What's wrong with due-process? What's bad about documenting and justifying why a teacher should get fired? That is all tenure says. It's not like if a teacher is tenured they can just sit back and not teach. If that is happening the administrator needs to do their job and start documenting what is happening and then to begin the process to deal with an inadequate teacher. If an administrator doesn't take these steps they are not doing their job either.

Chris L.
Chris L3 years ago

I think the concept of tenure is misunderstood by many commenters on this article. Tenure in no way means a job for life. If you are a bad teacher, you can be let go despite your tenure, however, it falls on the administration to follow the investigative steps necessary to let the teacher go. And, with a conscientious administration, it does not take several years or a half-million dollars. It does take some time, dedication, and consistency. Without tenure, you will end up with a group of teachers that are simply shills for the superintendent, who, in most of California, is elected. That means the teachers will not teach anything that the constituents of that are opposed to, even if it is wrong. Is this really where we want to go with our education? Do we want our children to actually learn to think, or just to parrot whatever the current political pap of the day is. Without some protection like tenure for teachers, that is where we are headed.

Val M.
Val M3 years ago


Eric Lees
Eric L3 years ago

Well said Lori. What jobs besides teachers have such a thing as tenure where no matter how bad you are at your job you get to keep it? A teacher should be there to teach kids if they can't do that get someone else that can, what a concept.

Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Respect the work of the teachers, both the parents and the school administrators

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan H3 years ago


Brian Steele
Brian Steele3 years ago

I don't understand the concept of Tenure as opposed to any other employment relationship. Here in the UK, apart from things like discrimination issues which confer rights from day one, an employer can terminate a contract without giving a reason for up to two years.

At that point, all members of staff have security of employment and can only be removed for justifiable reasons, which in the absence of wrongdoing, are basically redundancy (ie. overstaffing) or underperformance. Both of these require proper procedures to be followed, which either demonstrate that staffing must be cut and show which staff are affected, or give the employee evidence of underperformance and the opportunity to improve.

In both these cases, there is protection for staff who can only be dismissed if there is a genuine justification, and protection for the employer in that they can dismiss if the circumstances indicate it is appropriate.

We still need Tribunals to adjudicate on whether the right decisions have been made, but this seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable system, that does not rely on some arcane principle that after a certain period, people end up with a job for life.

Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia3 years ago

Tenure is not bullshit. Once tenure is removed it will be open season for management in schools to get school directors their choice of pet teachers no matter what. I think the judge asked the wrong question. Why are low income, disadvantaged children treated as the advantaged ones and their success is assumed to hinge on a single teacher and no other factors? How come teacher aides, remedial classes and other resources are not part of the educational offering to these children? Where is the money allocated? The Pentagon? The rescue packages to the banks? Universities abusing animals and doing ludicrous experiments such as the one depicted on a story here in Care2 intoxicating sheep to mimic the fetal alcohol syndrome?