Teacher-tenure lawsuit distracts from real issues

Julia Macias, one of nine student plaintiffs in a case where a judge ruled California’s teacher-tenure laws unconstitutional, speaks outside Los Angeles Superior Court in June 2014.
Julia Macias, one of nine student plaintiffs in a case where a judge ruled California’s teacher-tenure laws unconstitutional, speaks outside Los Angeles Superior Court in June 2014. New York Time file

Last month, the state 2nd District Court of Appeal heard arguments in Vergara v. California, the lawsuit challenging the state’s teacher employment rules. The trial judge in the case erroneously concluded that five provisions of state education codes violated the constitutional rights of all students in California, particularly those who are poor and minority.

Teachers see firsthand how racism and economic disparities have a profound impact on a child’s education. Particularly during recessions when school budgets are cut, working-class kids and children of color are disproportionately hurt.

But it’s not the education code that is at fault.

When school district budgets are cut, parents in more affluent neighborhoods essentially tax themselves to provide librarians, after-school programs, field trips and other needs. Poorer families aren’t able to do that. That is one reason the Vergara lawsuit is just a diversion from the real issues confronting public education.

California faces a severe teacher shortage. Young people are not going into the profession and veteran teachers often retire as soon as they can. The environment for teaching has never been more toxic. The Vergara lawsuit, which seeks to strip teachers of all protection from unjust and arbitrary firings, will only worsen the crisis.

Further, local districts, not the state, determine where teachers are placed, who gets laid off and what kind of mentoring to provide to struggling teachers. Some districts do this well, others do not.

During the Vergara trial, districts including El Monte, Long Beach San Juan and others that have effective and collaborative ways of working with teachers defended the education codes. Even former Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy, who spoke in favor of the lawsuit, admitted that his district had successfully let go of hundreds of below-par teachers.

Of course, layoffs hurt all students and the adults who lose their jobs. That’s why teachers unions have worked for increased funding for our schools. But seniority is an essential component in having an education system free of coercion, favoritism and changing political winds. Seniority creates objective criteria for determining who keeps their job and places value on experience.

The wealthy interests backing the Vergara lawsuit suggest that this is unfair and that teacher quality should be considered when these decisions are made. The problem is that determining quality is subjective and open to favoritism. The only feasible way is using test scores; that’s really what the Vergara case is about. How ironic when the federal government has recognized the unreliability and overuse of testing, and has backed away from using test scores to evaluate teachers.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a highly respected professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, testified during the Vergara trial that a teacher’s performance should not be judged on the basis of flawed test rankings. She also stressed, as did many other witnesses, that school districts with effective mentoring and evaluation programs have successfully identified and helped poor-performing teachers.

Since voters approved Proposition 30 in 2012, California has begun to repair the damage to our public schools caused by the Great Recession. But more needs to be done. All of our children deserve additional resources, excellent teachers, smaller class sizes, and social services. We should be working constructively to ensure that all students have what they need to excel, not blaming teachers.

Joshua Pechthalt is president of the California Federation of Teachers. He can be contacted at