Editorial: Chicago Tribune

Public Statement Newspaper Editorials

California judge rightly strikes down teacher job protection laws

Earlier this year, we told you about a riveting case unfolding in a Los Angeles courtroom. Nine students — among them 15-year-old Beatriz Vergara — contended that strong job protections enshrined in state law, including teacher tenure, made it too difficult to fire ineffective educators. The students complained that their education was stifled because they were trapped in classrooms with inadequate teachers who failed to maintain basic discipline, let alone teach.

The plaintiffs’ key argument in Vergara v. California: The laws in question cheat untold thousands of children — many of them low-income and minority students — of their constitutional right to a decent education.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed. Thunderously. His 16-page opinion is rattling teachers unions and their political allies from coast to coast. Treu ruled that tenure, seniority and other rigid job protections for teachers create unequal conditions in public schools and rob low-income and minority children of the best teachers.

The evidence of how damaging a poor teacher is to a student’s learning is “compelling,” the judge wrote. “Indeed it shocks the conscience.”

Treu cited a four-year study that found Los Angeles students taught by teachers “in the bottom 5 percent of competence lose 9.54 months of learning in a single year compared to students with average teachers.” Children lose 9.54 months!

This blockbuster decision turns on a simple premise: Every child deserves the best teacher. Not necessarily the most experienced. Or the one who has the most advanced degrees. Or the one who has clung to the classroom via tenure, a process that in California takes a shockingly brief two years on the job. In Illinois, by contrast, teachers earn tenure after four years if they perform satisfactorily.

Timothy Knowles of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute tells us that if the California decision is upheld, “it is incredibly important. Labor’s main concern seems to be capricious leaders who will fire teachers without due process. That is missing the larger point: Students who depend on high-quality teaching the most are least likely to get it because of job protections that labor and management have concocted over time.”

In 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court came to much the same conclusion as Treu in a different case that involved the layoffs of 1,289 Chicago Public Schools teachers. Long story short: The court ruled that state law gave CPS officials leeway to let teaching skill trump tenure in determining layoff lists.

That should be the law of the land. A school’s primary function is to serve students. No priority cherished by adults — including teacher tenure or other job protections — should outweigh the profound obligation to put the most adept teacher at the head of every classroom.

We’re encouraged that many states are moving in that direction. In Illinois, a set of powerful 2011 reforms made it harder for teachers to earn tenure and easier for school districts to fire low-performing teachers. But harder and easier does not mean hard and easy. The system is still stacked in favor of a poorly performing teacher staying at the head of the class. Year after year.

In the California case, the plaintiffs have contended that, over 10 years, only 91 of the state’s 275,000 teachers have been fired. And most of those dismissals were for inappropriate conduct, they said; only 19 teachers were dismissed for unsatisfactory performance. Yet the judge estimated that the number of “grossly ineffective teachers” in California ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.

We hope the California decision, and reform efforts across the country, eventually lead to the end of tenure. As we’ve said, there’s no reason to preserve it. In most professions — law, retail, secretarial work, accountancy, medicine — people earn the chance to come back to work every day. They don’t get tenure. Why should teachers be any different?

The defendants in the California case, including the state Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association, vow to appeal to that state’s Supreme Court.

But we hope this decision signals that tenure and other inflexible job protections are on the way out. Expect to read about lawsuits and legislation in other states to achieve similar reforms. In the words of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who applauded Tuesday’s ruling, it presents “a mandate” to fix education inequities.

While this case plays out in court, while politicians spend more time and energy appeasing the grown-ups who fund their political campaigns rather than demolishing barriers to children’s education, students are doomed to classrooms with teachers who shouldn’t be there. Every day.

That should shock everyone’s conscience.