June 11. In a stunning decision a Superior Court judge struck down teacher job security (called “tenure”) and layoff rights in California calling them “unconstitutional”. Claiming to base his decision on the view that all students deserve an equal education he says these job rights protections are so ironclad in California that incompetent teachers can’t be fired. Judge Rolf M. Treu further claims the incompetents are more often than not put in minority school districts and this is another reason to strike down the laws. Click here for the judge’s full decision.
I taught in Connecticut for forty years (Social Studies and Computer Education) and was a lobbyist for the CT State Federation of Teachers (AFT) for a year in the CT legislature. I know a bit about issues of job security.
Judge Treu states as a point of fact that there is “no dispute” that there are grossly ineffective teachers in California. I would bet my bottom dollar that there is a very big dispute over how many such teachers there are and whether they’re being dealt with properly. The judge merely quotes a study that estimates the number of “grossly
ineffective” teachers is between 2,750 and 8,250. He then cites testimony of a Dr. Kane who claims that a student who has a teacher “in the bottom 5% of competence” loses virtually a whole year of learning. This is bizarre. How can Kane or the judge neatly line up “competence” on a mathematical chart? You can be competent or incompetent, like you can be pregnant or not pregnant. There aren’t degrees of pregnancy or competence. Put another way imagine if you were talking about a top private school with 100 teachers. Is the judge telling us that students in the 5 classes whose teachers are rated with lowest “competence” in that school lost the whole year’s work?
Teachers without tenure basically have no job rights at all. They can just be let go for any reason. In California teachers get basic job rights if they’re not given notice of dismissal by March 15 of their second year. The judge thinks that two years is not enough time to evaluate whether a teacher should be given this job security and he has decided this is not just a matter of argument, but a constitutional matter.
Now compare this to private sector unionized workers. From what I know most get fair dismissal rights after 90 days. Yet that comparison doesn’t nearly tell the whole story. A factory worker gets hired off the street and is taught the job from scratch. If she or he can’t cut it after a few months the worker is let go. It’s a lot different for a school teacher. A teacher is required to get a teaching license and can only do that after graduating college, passing teaching courses, passing “student teaching” for several months and in most states passing a written skill exam.
Then the teacher is in a classroom for from 2 years (California) to 5 years (New Hampshire) before they get “tenure”. All that time they are observed and evaluated. Tenure is not an unbreakable contract. It only means a teacher can only be fired for specific causes like “incompetence” or “insubordination” and those charges have to be proven to a Board of Education and ultimately to a judge or neutral arbitrator. Since a teacher may have spent $100,000 or much more to jump through all those hoops and get that license (and pays more for a required graduate degree to maintain the license) why in hell shouldn’t it be difficult for a school board to deprive the teacher of his or her job?
Now the judge doesn’t include the full language of the tenure laws in his decision so I don’t know what the grounds are for dismissal in the Golden State, but I assume like in Connecticut there are multiple reasons one can get fired. Let’s say for the sake of argument that teacher unions in California are the strongest in the world and are so powerful that they forced the legislature to pass laws that make it impossible to fire anyone who has tenure. Then the judge would be right to demand changes, but why did the judge also savage layoff rights, too?
In California the law says if teachers are to be fired because the number of jobs has been cut, the senior teachers are kept and the teachers with one or two years in the system are let go. That’s absolutely fair. Otherwise school boards would be “saving money” by letting go the most senior teachers who earn tens of thousands more than teachers at the bottom of the pay scale. (Oh yes they would!) But Judge Treu doesn’t even mention the reason for seniority rights. He accepts whole hog the argument of the millionaire inspired and financed “Students Matter” group that filed the lawsuit. They claim there is all this young “gifted” talent being lost while senior teachers are being kept “no matter how grossly ineffective” the senior teachers are. That’s wrong for two reasons: 1) It goes back to the question of competence which is a whole other issue, 2) It doesn’t appreciate the very common sense notion that on average teachers with decades of experience are better able to handle classrooms and know more about their subject areas than do rookies (however much their “gifts”).
The decision will be appealed to higher courts, but this should be a grave warning to teachers, ALL teachers in the USA. This is a massive clap of thunder. The 1% want to totally degrade the profession and I think eventually give most teachers the status of adjunct professors, those college teachers who get paid by the course, with no benefits and no rights.
Court appeals should only be part of the effort to fight back. Teachers should get out in the streets and let politicians and judges know that teachers will not stand to go back to the days of genteel poverty and cowering before their betters.
There is much more to say on the subject. Students should indeed have an equal education, but that gets into the questions of school and housing segregation, issues that Judge Treu cannot or will not understand. But all that is for another time.