The Vergara lawsuit’s focus on teacher tenure diverts attention from the larger problems plaguing U.S. public education
The Vergara case might result in fewer demonstrably bad teachers, but it ignores the larger, more complex reasons why our public schools are struggling.
After a close reading of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling in the landmark lawsuit challenging California’s teacher tenure rules, Vergara v. State of California, I actually think the judge got it right.
That said, I’m offended by the entire premise of this lawsuit. I’m offended by the victory celebrations of the so-called school “reformers” who supported the plaintiffs in the case—and most of all, I’m offended by the assumption that this ruling will somehow magically fix the problems plaguing public education in California and elsewhere.
In the wake of Judge Treu’s June 10 ruling, critics of the decision have suggested it marks a serious blow to teachers’ hard-fought protections or job security.
I disagree. There seems to be plenty of room in the Vergara decision for a reasonable reworking of California’s tenure rules in a way that would preserve due process, while making it easier to remove what the judge calls “grossly ineffective” teachers.
As Judge Treu indicated, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed on a number of key points during the Vergara trial:
• “Grossly ineffective” teachers undermine a child’s ability to succeed in school.
• There are a significant number of these teachers in the state’s schools. (A witness for the defense, education researcher David Berliner, estimated that 1 to 3 percent of the state’s teachers could be called grossly ineffective, meaning up to 8,250 of California’s roughly 275,000 teachers would fit this description.)
• The two-year probationary period before California teachers are granted tenure at a school isn’t long enough to accurately assess their performance.
The plaintiffs also argued that it was “too time consuming and too expensive to go through the dismissal process [currently in place in California] to rid school districts of grossly ineffective teachers.” The judge concurred, noting that even a defense witness acknowledged such dismissals were “extremely rare.”
“There is no question that teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought,” he wrote (emphasis mine). “However, based on the evidence before this Court, it finds the current system … to be so complex, time consuming, and expensive as to make an effective, efficient, yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.”
Judge Treu didn’t rule against tenure as a concept. He simply thought California’s system was structured in a way that violates students’ rights.
If state policy makers were to extend the probationary period for new teachers to 3-5 years and streamline the dismissal process for those who are demonstrably poor, it’s likely this new system would be judged constitutional, while still giving educators their due process.
But here’s the thing: The fact that this lawsuit was even filed is an unfortunate example of how the rich and powerful are able to frame the whole school-reform debate in their terms.
(Next page: Why the Vergara suit will have a minimal effect on student achievement)