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Students Win Big in California Ruling

June 12, 2014 J

By Mallory Carr

On Tuesday, common sense scored a major victory when a California judge ruled the states’ teacher tenure and dismissal processes unconstitutional and faulted them with causing unequal educational opportunities.

The lawsuit resulted from nine Los Angeles School District students suing the State of California for failing to provide a quality education equal to that available in other local schools. They challenged three statutes specifically: the Permanent Employment Statute, which grants tenure; the Dismissal Statute, which requires the long and costly process for dismissing an ineffective teacher; and the “Last in, First Out” statute, which requires that the last teacher to be hired is the first to be fired during layoffs.

Combined, these policies grant teachers tenure – a job for life – after less than two years of teaching and make it practically impossible to fire them if they end up being ineffective. Instead, firing decisions are made without accounting for any sort of performance metric. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu called the logic behind such a policy “unfathomable and therefore constitutionally unsupportable.”

In her testimony, Beatriz Vergara, a sophomore at Cesar Chavez Learning Academy and one of the nine plaintiffs, talked about her own experience with bad teachers. A particularly poor teacher she had in sixth-grade would sleep in class and failed to actually teach much of anything. Beatriz referred to this year as a “lost opportunity” and said, “Now that I look back, I could have been learning something, and actually gone to honors in seventh grade like my friends.”

Judge Treu emphasized the injustice of the current laws – which are emphatically backed by teachers’ unions – by invoking the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education, which called education “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

By making it impossible to fire bad teachers, who mostly end up teaching poor and minority students, equal education is not available to all, and some school districts end up with a much higher caliber of teaching than others.

Dr. Thomas Kane, a professor of Education and Economics at Harvard University, found that Latino students were 68 percent more likely than white students to be taught by the worst teachers, those ranking in the bottom 5 percent of effectiveness. African-American students were 43 percent more likely.

Teachers do make a difference in their student’s outcomes. Good teachers can place students on a better trajectory for success whereas the worst teachers can cause students to fall behind during the school year. Just one year with a quality teacher can add $10,600 to a student’s lifetime earnings. On the other hand, one year with a bad teacher can cause students to lose over nine months of learning.

Despite these facts, teachers’ unions continue to defend rules that end up insuring minority and low-income students receive the worst teachers. Apparently unaware that nine students who cared deeply about their own and their peers’ education sued the state, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said the “lawsuit was never about helping students, but is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda.”

Mr. Van Roekel has it wrong. It’s not millionaires who “undermine the teaching profession,” but the continued existence of unfair, union-supported practices that perpetuate inequalities among student opportunity and serve to protect bad teachers instead of students.

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