Editorials

Teacher tenure debate ends with too little noise

Julia Macias, one of the nine student plaintiffs in the case where a judge ruled California's teacher tenure laws unconstitutional, speaks in Los Angeles in 2014. The ruling was overturned on appeal and on Monday, the California Supreme Court decided not to review the case.
Julia Macias, one of the nine student plaintiffs in the case where a judge ruled California's teacher tenure laws unconstitutional, speaks in Los Angeles in 2014. The ruling was overturned on appeal and on Monday, the California Supreme Court decided not to review the case. NYT

With less noise than it takes to close a book – or the door to an underperforming classroom – the movement to make it easier to fire incompetent teachers in California was put to rest on Monday, too quietly.

By a 4-3 decision, the California Supreme Court decided not to review Vergara v. California. Though a Superior Court judge had found in 2014 that teachers’ job protections in this state go so far that they violate students’ constitutional guarantees of equal treatment and “shock the conscience,” an appellate panel had overruled him in April.

Ending the lawsuit this way, without high court involvement, short-circuits one of the state’s most-needed conversations. Just because a system may not be unconstitutional doesn’t mean it’s working fairly, and the appeals court ruling was hardly a ringing endorsement of California’s rules on teacher tenure.

California’s rules – which are among the most pro-teacher in the nation – make it almost impossible to get rid of classroom instructors who don’t know what they’re doing. That’s only a small fraction, but it equates to 2,750 to 8,250 “grossly incompetent” teachers statewide. A bad teacher can do a lot of damage, to students and to taxpayers who pay for the lost potential and unearned paychecks, and often those teachers, driven out of rich school districts, end up in front of the state’s poorest and most vulnerable children.

Three justices on the high court saw the need for a closer examination; two took the unusual step of issuing dissents, and scathing ones at that. Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, appointees of Gov. Jerry Brown, sharply questioned the appeals court’s conclusion and argued that the court ducked important questions of fairness.

“The nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court,” Liu wrote.

Added Cuéllar: “There is a difference between the usual blemishes in governance left as institutions implement statutes or engage in routine trade-offs and those staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise. Knowing the difference is as fundamental as education itself.”

Liu and Cuéllar, joined by Justice Ming Chin, a Gov. Pete Wilson appointee, are right, and not just legally speaking. The real remedy for this problem – changing the law – won’t happen without a lot more political pressure, and a lot more noise.

The California Teachers Association is one of the state’s most powerful lobbies, and it is dug in on teacher tenure; even a modest bill on the issue this year ended up gutted beyond recognition.

As much as we respect the hard work of teachers, quality control is essential, particularly at a moment when the CTA is pushing for Proposition 55, a 12-year tax increase on the wealthy. It would be nice if state lawmakers had the spine to put kids before the votes and money of teachers’ unions. And voters considering Proposition 55 should ask what the CTA has done for kids in poor neighborhoods lately. Until then, or until kids’ voices become louder than adults’, the quieter constituency will lose.

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