Editorial: The New York Times

Public Statement Newspaper Editorials

A New Battle for Equal Education: In California, a Judge Takes On Teacher Tenure

When states are sued for providing inferior education to poor and minority children, the issue is usually money — disproportionately more money for white students, less for others. A California judge has now brought another deep-rooted inequity to light: poor teaching.

In an important decision issued on Tuesday, Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that state laws governing the hiring, firing and job security of teachers violate the California Constitution and disproportionately saddle poor and minority children with ineffective teachers.

The ruling opens a new chapter in the equal education struggle. It also underscores a shameful problem that has cast a long shadow over the lives of children, not just in California but in the rest of the country as well.

The plaintiffs in the case, Vergara v. California, are nine public school students who charged that state laws forced districts to give tenure to teachers, regardless of whether they can do the job, making it virtually impossible to fire even the worst of them.

In a blistering decision, Judge Treu agreed: “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

By way of illustration, he pointed to the stupidity of a state law that makes teachers eligible for tenure after 18 months even though evidence shows that such a decision reasonably takes between three and five years. Once teachers become permanent, he said, even those of who are grossly ineffective as measured by evaluations are protected by a dismissal process so “complex, time consuming and expensive” that it could take nearly 10 years and cost $450,000 before it runs its course. Faced with such a system, districts give up on dismissal and let poor performing teachers keep their jobs.

Judge Treu was equally scathing about the state laws on layoffs, which works on a “last in, first out” principle and ends up showing junior teachers the door even when they are demonstrably more talented. To defend such a policy, he said, the state would have to argue that it had a compelling interest in separating students from good teachers and subjecting them to incompetents who do them harm.

In finding the state statutes unconstitutional, the judge cited a powerful passage from Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that declared state laws establishing separate schools for white and black children unconstitutional. “In these days,” the court said, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Judge Treu left it up to state lawmakers to create new statutes that comport with the State Constitution. The Legislature is almost certain to face heavy pressure from the teachers’ union, who will try to discredit this ruling by condemning the judge as anti-union or by pointing out that the case was brought by a nonprofit group created by a Silicon Valley magnate.

Teachers deserve reasonable due process rights and job protections. But the unions can either work to change the anachronistic policies cited by the court or they will have change thrust upon them.