California Kids Win as Tenure Gets Fired

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president elect of the United Teachers Los Angeles, UTLA, takes questions on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Damian Dovarganes/AP

The kids won one. Black kids and brown kids, kids who live in ghetto neighborhoods and go to ghetto schools. Often, they get the very worst teachers public schools have to offer, and their education, which is supposed to be their lifeline out of the ghetto, becomes a shackle. But thanks to a ruling yesterday by Judge Rolf M. Treu of the Los Angeles Superior Court, that shackle may soon loosen.

The case, Vergara v. California, called into question teacher tenure rules, which essentially govern how teachers are hired and fired in public schools across the nation. Unlike tenure in college, these rules have little connection to actual academic work, or, really, any other reasonable standard by which teaching should be measured. Once used to defend teachers suspected of being communists, tenure has morphed into job protection enjoyed by no other profession and almost no trade. Short of murdering a child in front of several credible witnesses, the average (and even the frighteningly incompetent) public school teacher can enjoy titanium-grade job security.

The plaintiffs in Vergara framed their complaint as a civil rights issue, and Treu furthered that narrative in his decision, which opens with a reference to Brown v. Board of Education, the watershed 1954 case that successfully challenged the separate-but-equal doctrine of public schooling. His opinion goes on to conclude that there is "no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms" and that "the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students."

"If the ruling stands," the Los Angeles Times reported, "California will have to craft new rules for hiring and firing teachers." And given California's size and national prominence, other states are likely to face similar litigation.

Treu vividly depicted the dreary state of affairs I witnessed as a public school teacher: tenure is awarded for no reason other than seniority, as if merely showing up every day were an incredible feat of pedagogy. It is so expensive to remove a teacher (perhaps as much as $450,000 in California), that most school districts don't even bother, instead shuffling the lemons to a dropout factory where no one will notice their baleful presence. And it perpetuates the noxious practice known as last-in-first-out, which privileges seniority above all other attributes, so that when reductions in the teaching force occur, they mandatorily target the most junior teachers, regardless of how good those teachers may be. As it happens, the youngest teachers often teach at the most challenging schools, so that the inane LIFO rule (I couldn't think of a less appealing acronym if I tried) further destabilizes the very institutions that crave stability.

A good deal of research suggests that most teachers hit their peak at about five years in the classroom and don't significantly improve their practice after that. In other words, a Teacher for America whippersnapper might actually be a superior educator to the 30-year veteran who has been giving out the same worksheets since Bill Clinton took his first presidential oath. That suggests our educational policy should be geared toward attracting bright young things who will stay for more than a couple of years, but less than a couple of decades. But the unions, which largely draw their support from veteran teachers, have rigged the pay scale so that those who stay the longest reap the greatest reward.

The teachers unions will doubtlessly appeal the Vergara ruling. But they should know that they are quickly becoming the bête noire of New Liberals—like the one sitting in the White House—who no longer feel the compulsion to take their marching orders from labor. At some point, blind fealty to unions became an absurd exercise in blindness to reality. That's why Democrats like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have shown support for both the Common Core school standards and the expansion of charter schools. The unions are terrified of both. Far more terrifying, the reformers know, is what we are doing to the minds of our poor children. Or not doing.

The enemies of reform will inevitably point to the fact that Vergara was brought by Students Matter, an advocacy group funded by the Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch. These fervid paranoids will suggest that some nefarious forces are at work here, that our public schools are on the verge of an invasion of hedge-fund managers. I say good for Welch. He could have bought a yacht. Instead, he gave poor kids in Los Angeles a voice.