A first-of-its-kind court ruling that concluded California’s union-backed teacher tenure, layoff and dismissal laws infringe on students’ rights to an equal public education adds fire to a debate over whether the job protections afforded professional educators are partly to blame for what ails the nation’s schools, experts said.
A judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday sided with nine students in Vergara vs. California who sued to overturn the state statutes governing teacher hiring and firing, saying they served no compelling purpose and had led to an unfair, nonsensical system that drove excellent new teachers from the classroom too soon while allowing incompetent senior ones to remain.
The practices harm students in a way that “shocks the conscience” and have “a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students,” Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said in striking down the five laws as violations of the California Constitution.
Similar civil rights arguments have been made in the past to challenge school desegregation and recently to contest inequities in school funding, but the California decision makes the first time that a court has declared teacher tenure and related job guarantees unconstitutional, said William Koski, director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University.
But given California’s size and the historical strength of its teacher unions, experts said it would nonetheless fuel legislative debates, if not more litigation, over how teachers are evaluated, rewarded, retained and terminated. If that happens, it will be with the support of the Obama administration, which has encouraged states to make student test scores a feature of teacher evaluations.
“My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement Tuesday. “Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation.”