In a closely watched case, a California judge ruled on June 10 that the state’s teacher tenure laws infringed on the civil rights of students in schools in poor communities to a proper education guaranteed under the state constitution.
Pointing to evidence that one to three percent of teachers in California’s public schools are grossly ineffective, Judge Rolf Treu wrote in his 16-page decision that teacher tenure laws “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and that they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”
The astroturf parent group that pursued the lawsuit was funded by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch. While Treu left California tenure laws in place until state appeals courts review his ruling, similar anti-tenure lawsuits have since been filed in several states, including here in New York.
Treu’s ruling also drew a swift reaction from critics who asked why the judge focused his ire exclusively on a small group of allegedly ineffective teachers while ignoring widespread phenomena such as family poverty, lack of adequate school funding and high rates of teacher turnover.
“If it is a violation of the California state constitution to have tenure laws that make it hard to fire bad teachers in poor and minority communities, why isn’t it a violation when the state and districts draw school boundary lines in a way that promotes deeply unequal, economically segregated schools that many strong educators won’t teach in?” wrote Richard Kahlenberg, author and editor of numerous books on education policy, at Slate.
The unusual nature of the Vergara case was underscored by revelations that some of the nine child plaintiffs attend charter schools where there is no tenure. Elizabeth and Beatriz Vergara (for whom the lawsuit is named) both attend a pilot school in the Los Angeles Unified School District that is free to let teachers go at the end of the school year for any reason, including ineffectiveness. Another plaintiff testified that her teacher Christine McLaughlin was a very bad teacher even though McLaughlin had received the 2013 Teacher of the Year award from the Pasadena (Calif.) Unified School District.
Not a Lifetime Job Guarantee
Instead of being framed as a due process issue, teacher tenure has been framed as a lifetime job guarantee by corporate-backed school reformers intent on driving a wedge between parents and teachers. In fact, tenure has existed to prevent politics from entering the classroom and to protect teachers from retribution for well over 100 years, decades before unions even existed or had collective bargaining rights.
Why Tenure Helps Teachers Help Kids
I taught elementary school at PS 147 in Williamsburg for 27 years. I realized early on that building strong community roots with my students and their parents, all people of color, and fighting for their interests would make me a more successful teacher. That activism led to clashes with a white-controlled local school board. The district, where 90 percent of the students were children of color, was under the political control of my union, the United Federation of teachers (UFT). The political kingpin was the UFT district rep.
In 1973, two years after I received tenure, the district superintendent and the UFT representative visited my assistant principal. They both “suggested” he give me an unsatisfactory rating for the school year, the first step in forcing me out of my job. My assistant principal refused; he later joked that his hopes of becoming a principal ended that day.
Thus I became a fierce defender of tenure and also understood how supervisors could get rid of tenured teachers if they wanted to put some effort into it.
I also went on to fight for the kids inside my school, especially when we got an ambitious principal who used every trick in the book to try to boost test scores. A key was removing as many low-scoring children as possible from the tests. If they were classified in any way as special needs, they could be tested separately and their scores would not be lumped in with the rest of the students’.
One of the more rambunctious boys I taught received speech therapy for a lisp. When my principal ordered him removed from my class on testing day, I balked. I even called the New York Times to complain and was told, “Doesn’t that happen all the time?”
My principal also moved against another boy in the class whose apartment had caught fire, forcing his family to move in with a relative in another district a few miles away during the two months it would take to fix their apartment. But he kept coming to class. A few days before the test, I received a note that he had transferred to a school near his relative. The secretary told me the principal had ordered the transfer. She had assumed that he would score low (I won’t get into the possible racial implications of her assumption) when in fact I had confidence he would do fine. I fought tooth and nail to keep him and threatened to make a big stink about it. She relented but with these words: He’d better do well on the test. And he did. And I was able to advocate for the kids because I had tenure.
— Norm Scott
Tenure actually protects children rather than hurts them by allowing teachers to stand up for their interests. In my own school, when a principal tried to get teachers to push children who struggled with reading into special education classes as a way to make the school’s reading scores look better, most teachers were able to resist (see sidebar).
In a perfect educational world all teachers would be great and all supervisors would be benign, wise and fair and treat all teachers with respect and consideration. But alas — that is why there is such a thing as tenure, a fact that was highlighted during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years in office.
Under Bloomberg, the average number of years spent teaching by a New York City school principal dropped from 14 to nine, according to a 2014 report by the city’s Independent Budget Office. Many of the new principals from that era had little or no teaching experience and were trained in how to undermine the teachers union’s school-level leaders and target those teachers who they felt were not on their “team,” even if they were highly experienced. The situation worsened when former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein created a school funding formula that incentivized getting rid of more costly veteran teachers in favor of less expensive new teachers.
The drive to eliminate tenure can be understood as a part of a larger effort by a coterie of billionaire education “reformers,” such as Bloomberg, Bill Gates and the Walton Family, who seek to deprofessionalize teaching and make it a low-skill, low-wage position in which an interchangeable workforce with no job security administers scripted curricula and oversees standardized test preparation. We are already far down this road and unfortunately the two major national teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have collaborated more with the so-called reformers than they have opposed them.
It remains to be seen whether an anti-teacher tenure lawsuit can succeed in New York, which has more rigorous tenure laws than California — a three-year probationary period and an allowance for principals to extend probation year after year. The teachers union here in New York is hungry for a seat at the table with the Democratic Party. It also has little stomach to put up a real fight to hold principals and the higher-ups who install them accountable or to engage in a struggle to channel equitable resources to troubled schools, so the future of teacher tenure is uncertain.
Norm Scott is a former New York City schoolteacher. He writes regularly for ednotesonline.blogspot.com.