Last week’s decision from a state judge dismissing teacher tenure statutes drew mixed reaction from local schools officials.
“I believe that this case will likely be appealed, so we won’t know the eventual outcome for many years,” said Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District. “For that reason, I do not expect any immediate impact from the decision. Many of the issues in the case are not ones that we deal with.”
Supporters of ending teacher tenure point to restrictions that make it virtually impossible to fire poorly performing teachers. Further, they contend that the worst teachers tend to end up in school districts in the poorest areas of the state, making it more difficult for those students to receive a good education.
“I do know that states that do not have teacher tenure laws do not necessarily provide students with the best education,” Groves said.
Tammy Logan, president of the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees, said she sees valid points on both sides of the argument.
“There are some changes that I would like to see, mainly to streamline the dismissal of truly bad teachers,” she said. “However, removing teacher due-process protections while failing to provide a budget at even the national norm is not going to improve education in California.”
She doesn’t buy the premise that low-income students are most penalized because of teacher tenure.
“Teachers in inner-city schools have significantly more students with behavior issues, children who start behind in their learning and larger class sizes. The issue is mostly that good teachers leave rather than that bad teachers stay,” Logan said. “This ruling is likely to decrease the pool of good teachers or reduce stability at schools.”
Buoyed by two powerful teachers’ unions, current laws allow K-12 teachers to earn tenure after two years of employment. Critics claim that such conditions enable less-than-committed teachers to “coast” without fear of being fired for poor performance.
“The issue is huge, for students clearly, but also for new teachers’ career prospects, superintendents’ powers of change and even for taxpayers,” said Los Altos Hills resident Mark Brier.
For the past four years, Brier has supported the efforts of the nonprofit Students Matter, led by co-founder David Welch. Students Matter funded the legal action that resulted in the June 10 decision. Brier has held two fundraisers for Students Matter at his home.
“I believe in the children of our state,” Welch said. “But I also believe our public education system is failing our children because it has stopped putting their needs and success above all else. This case was designed to change that.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu sided with the plaintiffs in the Vergara v. California case, striking down five provisions of the educational code as unconstitutional – codes related to tenure, dismissals and layoffs.
According to the case forwarded by Students Matter, current laws “impose substantial harm on California’s students by forcing administrators to push passionate, inspiring teachers out of the school system and keep grossly ineffective teachers in front of students year after year.”
“The evidence is compelling,” Treu wrote in his decision. “Indeed, it shocks the conscience. ... This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily and for no legally recognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.”
On the other hand, “a measure of job security and good benefits can help to encourage those who might otherwise choose a more financially beneficial career,” Logan said.
Pointing to the Los Altos School District’s resources and supportive community, she noted that “not all schools or districts have our resources or the advantage of a parent population with significantly high education levels. This decision does nothing to truly support disadvantaged children.”
The judge’s decision last week was tentative, allowing an opportunity for appeal. Supporters acknowledge that the unions will fight hard to keep the current statutes in place. But they also noted that the ruling has and will create a groundswell of support – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the decision – and a ripple effect that could spur similar outcomes nationwide.