“Sh*t, Sh*t, Sh*t!!!”
I wasn’t present when AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Dennis van Roekel heard about “Vergara vs California,” but it’s easy to imagine them uttering an expletive (or two or three).
Understand, I’m not talking about their reaction to the judge’s decision earlier this week. I’m imagining how they might have reacted when the lawsuit challenging California’s tenure and seniority rules was filed in May 2012, more than two years ago.
Why might they have cursed when the lawsuit was filed? Because, I suspect, they knew that the three California rules were indefensible. These rules are not based on anything remotely connected to pedagogy or the needs of students but were political decisions made by the state legislature, heavily influenced by the powerful California Teachers Association, the CTA.
Consider the three provisions:
1) Tenure after TWO years? How can any organization, let alone something as complex as a school function that way? And by the way, the ‘two year’ rule actually means that a school principal has to make that ‘lifetime’ decision about halfway through the teacher’s second year on the job, after he or she has been in charge of a classroom for perhaps 14-15 months at most.
2) Slavish devotion to “Last Hired, First Fired,” as if the profession of teaching were labor’s equivalent of sanitation workers or pipefitters. 100% seniority! Nothing else matters, not a principal’s judgement, not student performance, not the teacher’s contributions to the school, and not student evaluation. Just years on the job!
3) A convoluted and complex process to remove inadequate teachers that reportedly involves about 70 discrete steps, takes years and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The case against those three provisions, “Vergara vs. California,” was decided this week: “A California judge ruled  Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the State Constitution and violated their civil rights. The decision hands teachers’ unions a major defeat in a landmark case, one that could radically alter how California teachers are hired and fired and prompt challenges to tenure laws in other states.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded the ruling: “For students in California and every other state, equal opportunities for learning must include the equal opportunity to be taught by a great teacher. The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems.”
Teacher union foes like Whitney Tilson and RiShawn Biddle could hardly restrain themselves, while union leaders Weingarten, van Roekel and New York City’s United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew complained that the decision diverted attention from social unfairness and then attacked the man behind the lawsuit. Here’s part of Mulgrew’s statement: “What shocks the conscience is the way the judge misread the evidence and the law, and sided with a Silicon Valley millionaire who never taught a day in his life.”
Judge Treu stayed the decision pending appeal and urged the legislature to fix the problems, but how likely is it that the California legislature will act to make earning tenure a more reasonable process, perhaps after three or even four years of teaching, instead of two?
That’s probably not going to happen because the CTA still wields great power. But if California needs a model, New York City’s approach to granting tenure seems to work well, as Chalkbeat explains here.
“Last hired, first fired”–using seniority as the sole factor in layoffs–is as indefensible as 2-year tenure, but it is also counter-productive because it alienates young teachers, some of whom are showing their displeasure by declining to support their national and state unions. That’s happened in Modesto, California and Wicomico, Maryland, where local chapters want to disaffiliate with their state association and the NEA itself. In neither case has it been pretty.
Tenure and due process are essential, in my view, but excessive protectionism (70+ steps to remove a teacher?) alienates the general public and the majority of effective teachers, particularly young teachers who are still full of idealism and resent seeing their union spend so much money defending teachers who probably should have been counseled out of the profession years ago.
With the modal ‘years of experience’ of teachers dropping dramatically, from 15 years in 1987 to 1 or 2 years today, young teachers are a force to be reckoned with. If a significant number of them abandon the familiar NEA/AFT model, or if they develop and adopt a new form of teacher unionism, public education and the teaching profession will be forever changed.
These are difficult times for teacher unions: declining membership and revenue, harsh criticism from traditional allies (like the leadership of the Democratic party), and now a court decision that will undoubtedly lead to similar challenges in other states.
The effort to blame poor education results on teachers and unions is misguided and malicious. It’s scapegoating, pure and simple, but–it must be said–protectionist policies like those in California play into the stereotype.
- 1. I lived in California from 2000-2010 and made a film, “First to Worst,” about the decline of the state’s public school system. Just to cite one case of the CTA’s power, the union wielded its influence to get Reed Hastings bounced from the State Board of Education in 2005. The Netflix founder had been appointed by Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, in 2000 and reappointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. Hastings was serving as Chair of the Board, but his advocacy of bilingual education and charter schools angered the CTA and–in lockstep–many statehouse Democrats (Hastings’ own party).↵
- 2. The Vergara in the case is Beatriz Vergara, one of nine minors, all students, who were plaintiffs in the case. The effort, however, was funded by a wealthy Silicon Valley technology magnate named David Welch and his organization, Students Matter. A great deal of material about the case is on its website: http://studentsmatter.org/our-case/vergara-v-california-case-status/↵
- 3. Here’s Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling: http://studentsmatter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Tenative-Decision.pdf ↵
- 4. He continued: “Together, we must work to increase public confidence in public education. This decision presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve. My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift. Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation. At the federal level, we are committed to encouraging and supporting that dialogue in partnership with states. At the same time, we all need to continue to address other inequities in education–including school funding, access to quality early childhood programs and school discipline.”↵
- 5. They have a point, it must be noted. California ranks at the bottom of all states in per-pupil spending ($8,342), which is about 30% below the national average of $11,864.↵
- 6. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/california-ruling-teacher-tenure-reformers-action-n-y-article-1.1826618#ixzz34S3muJC8↵