In our opinion: A welcome change from California on teacher tenure rules

Published: Thursday, June 12 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, June 11 2014 8:38 p.m. MDT

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Tuesday struck down California teacher tenure rules. The lawsuit has the potential to drastically alter the educational landscape and improve to the lives of students impacted by low-quality teachers.

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A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Tuesday struck down California teacher tenure rules, citing the “real and appreciable impact on the students’ fundamental right to equality of education.” The lawsuit, both in California and as a template for actions in other states, has the potential to drastically alter the educational landscape and improve the lives of poor and minority students disproportionately subject to lower-quality teachers.

“All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,” Judge Rolf Treu ruled. “All sides also agree that grossly ineffective teachers substantially undermine the ability of that child to succeed in school…. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, was quick to condemn the ruling, insisting that the judge in this case “fell victim to [the] anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric of one of America’s best corporate law firms.” On the contrary, there is nothing in Judge Treu’s ruling that can be construed as “anti-teacher.” Rather, it refocuses public education on its highest priority: students. And they benefit from quality instruction and suffer when poor teachers are incapable of providing it.

Far more encouraging was this statement from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix” problems in education, and that the ruling “presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework” for public education.

Of course, only a relative handful of teachers are “grossly ineffective.” It is important to keep in mind the tremendous good accomplished by professional and competent instructors. But California has become the paradigmatic case of excessive job protection: it is one of 10 states that require seniority to be considered when layoffs need to be made. (In Utah, by contrast, seniority may not be considered in making layoff decisions.) “The current system [is] so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory,” wrote Treu. The teacher termination process can take from two to 10 years, and cost the state anywhere from $50,000 to $450,000.

Part of Treu’s reasoning was that the system’s best teachers can and do avoid teaching in the poorest schools with the lowest test scores, making it all the harder for poor and minority students to overcome difficult circumstances.

It’s too early to see what kind of national impact this ruling will have, or whether other states will be inspired to similarly loosen their tenure rules. But by calling attention to the inequalities and inefficiencies created by tenure rules, this ruling is a welcome change on the educational landscape.

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