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Join the discussion: Does teacher tenure protect bad teachers or good schools?

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 12:41 p.m. MDT

Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Students Matter David Welch makes comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 10, 2014.  (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press) Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Students Matter David Welch makes comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press)

Teacher tenure laws were ruled unconstitutional Tuesday by a California Supreme Court judge in the case Vergara v. California, which could have far-reaching effects on education, reports Mel Robbins of CNN.

In Robbins’ opinion, “the message is loud and clear: Students, we've got your back.”

Teacher tenure, which provides job security for educators dependent on their years of work, was found to protect “grossly ineffective” teachers, Dana Goldstein wrote in The Atlantic, and existing tenure in California has been found to “impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.

“Here’s where the judge is right: It is difficult—actually, close to impossible—to argue that California’s teacher-tenure system makes sense,” Goldstein continued. In California, teachers are evaluated during their second year of teaching, before they’ve had enough time, Goldstein argued, to prove themselves one way or the other.

“This (process) disadvantages students, who might get stuck with sub-par instructors, but it also hurts teachers, who aren’t given enough time to prove their skill,” Goldstein wrote.

Judge Rolf M. Treu, who made the ruling, argued that not only does tenure protect bad teachers, but it also punishes good teachers by “saddling them with poor-performing colleagues and the system with expensive dismissal cases, which drain classroom resources,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Treu also said that if a school must cut its staff, teacher performance should matter more than anything else. If high-quality teachers are being fired while poor-quality ones keep their jobs based only on tenure, "the result is classroom disruption on two fronts," Treu said as reported by the Times. It hurts everyone involved and "is unfathomable and therefore constitutionally unsupportable."

However, Goldstein also wrote that while changing the rules of tenure might be beneficial, it won’t cause any significant change for students in poor schools. “Getting rid of these bad laws may do little to systemically raise student achievement,” Goldstein said. “For high-poverty schools, hiring is at least as big of a challenge as firing, and the Vergara decision does nothing to make it easier for the most struggling schools to attract or retain the best teacher candidates.”

If the ruling was meant to protect primarily poor schools, Goldstein stated, it might be eliminating a problem, but it isn’t providing a solution.

Others have said that while Treu may have been acting in good faith, his effort to eradicate bad teachers will harm the good teachers — who have also benefited from tenure — as well.

"This is a sad day for public education," said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, in the Times. “In focusing on these teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, (Treu) strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice."

If the majority of teachers are suffering so a few bad ones can be punished, union members have argued, then the ruling can’t really be presented as pro-teacher.

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, told the Times, "What this (ruling) continues to do is promote an anti-teacher narrative."

The ruling will be appealed by the California Teachers Association, according to The Atlantic, and likely will be heavily contested. If the ruling stands, it will be several years before it takes effect.

Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2

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