Since the June 10th ruling in the education-equity case, Vergara v. California by Judge Rolf M. Treu, where he essentially agreed with the plaintiffs—nine California students—that the state’s laws governing teacher tenure and dismissal unfairly saddle disadvantaged and minority students with weaker teachers, tenure reform has become a hot-button item.
Ironically, this lawsuit isn’t about teacher tenure per say. It is about teacher equity, or rather teacher quality distribution, a subject that has been a focal point of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. NCLB has received a lot of flak regarding its common standards and high-states testing mandate but its greatest achievement, or attempted achievement, has been the program’s Equality of Educational Opportunity of which Teacher Equity Planning is a part.
This lawsuit comes as California is working on its own “Plan for Highly Qualified Teachers” which was written and approved by the State Board of Education in September 2010. It reflects the steps the state is currently taking to ensure that students from low-income families and minority students are not taught at higher rates than other students by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.
This month the U.S. Department of Education detailed its long-delayed “50-state strategy” for ensuring that poor and minority students get access to as many great teachers as their more advantaged peers. But fewer than half of states have separate teacher-equity plans on file with the department.
A national survey of teachers found that core classes in high-poverty schools are twice as likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers as similar classes at schools serving more advantaged students. The difficulty in compliance is reflected in the fact that states have a limited authority and capacity to ensure that districts distribute teachers fairly, since decisions like hiring and transfers tend to be made at the local level. In addition, states are also focused on developing new teacher-evaluation systems that take into consideration student outcomes.
The idea of teacher tenure started as part of the labor movement in the late 19th century when teachers demanded protection from parents, administrators and politicians who would try to dictate lesson plans or exclude controversial materials. New Jersey became the first state to pass tenure legislation when, in 1910, it granted fair-dismissal rights to college professors and during the 1920s it was extended to elementary and high school teachers as well. Today about 2.3 million public school teachers in the U.S. have tenure.
Though tenure doesn’t guarantee lifetime employment it does make firing teachers a difficult and costly process, one that involves the union, the school board, the principal, the judicial system and thousands of dollars in legal fees. As a result of union contracts and state-labor laws in most states, a tenured teacher can’t be dismissed until charges are filed and months of evaluations, hearings and appeals have occurred. Meanwhile, school districts must pay out thousands of dollars for paid leave and substitute instructors. The system is deliberately slow and can take anywhere from ten months to ten years.
Some school districts have resorted to separation or “buy-out” agreements to avoid extensive hearings and costs and in 1997, Oregon abolished tenure and replaced it with 2-year renewable contracts and a rehabilitation program for underachieving instructors. Other states like Connecticut, New York and Michigan have simply eliminated the word “tenure” from teacher contracts while retaining the due-process rights.
Judge Treu stayed his ruling pending appeals and knowing how long that could take, California’s Teacher Equity Plan may be in place way before teacher tenure is reformed.