In California, teacher tenure has become a case of students’ civil rights. In Vergara v. State of California, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled this week in favor of nine students who challenged five public school tenure laws. He said the laws are unconstitutional because they expose students, especially minority students, to “grossly ineffective teachers.” The decision might spark similar lawsuits across the nation.
Currently, California teachers receive tenure after two years. Treu wrote that this “does not provide nearly enough time for an informed decision to be made.” Most states require three years for teachers to achieve tenure, nine states demand four or five years, and some states do not have tenure at all.
Treu found the procedure for firing teachers “so complex, time consuming and expensive” that dismissing a bad teacher is almost impossible. The process can take almost 10 years and cost $450,000 or more.
California also maintains a Last In, First Out policy, meaning administrators must fire the most recently hired teacher when cut-backs happen, “no matter how gifted the junior teacher, and no matter how grossly ineffective the senior teacher,” Treu wrote in his opinion. “The logic of this position is unfathomable.”
Teachers unions battling to keep the laws say the strong job protection attracts good teachers. Fred Glass from California Federation of Teachers (CFT) told me nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave teaching within five years, and if states remove job security, fewer quality professionals will enter the field.
Treu ruled the five tenure laws affect minorities and poorer schools most and cited Brown v. Board of Education in declaring them unconstitutional. Many critics of teacher tenure blame this inequality on the “dance of the lemons.” Instead of firing bad teachers, or “lemons,” administrators shuttle them from school to school, eventually settling them in those most desperate for staff—the failing schools in poorer districts.
CFT President Joshua Pechthalt claimed the ruling is “scapegoating teachers for problems originating in underfunding, poverty, and economic inequality.” Dennis Van Roekel, National Education Association president, blamed “millionaires and corporate special interests” who backed the lawsuit. He said they “undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda on public schools and students while working to privatize public education.”
Treu stayed the ruling pending appeals, which could take up to three years. Meanwhile, similar lawsuits in other states are likely, and Michelle Rhee, founder of StudentsFirst, an education reform group, hopes “this movement continues on the national stage for all of our students.”