Poor kids have rights too: Why California’s teacher tenure laws had to go

Opinion, Family/Kids, NakedLaw, Relationships, Rights

Big news in education: a California court has struck down teacher tenure laws as unconstitutional. The reasoning: these laws sent the worst teachers to the poorest schools, and made it nearly impossible to fire them. Poor and minority students are therefore denied equal rights to a quality education.

But what about the rights of our generally underpaid, overworked, beloved teachers? Wasn’t one of the few job perks tenure? (The other three: June, July and August.)

For someone like me who is a civil rights advocate for poor kids (see my book Swagger) and an employee rights advocate (it’s one of my primary areas of law practice), this was a tough one.

Until I read the ruling. Then it all became clear. This isn’t about teachers, or their rights generally, or whether we love or even value them. This is about the worst performing teachers, and how they harm kids, especially poor and minority kids, who get stuck with them. It’s about how damaging those teachers are, and why they’ve got to go.

All parties in the case, Vergara v. California, agreed that a competent teacher is probably the most important factor in a student’s success in school. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said the evidence presented at trial that bad teachers harm students “is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” For example, students with teachers in the bottom 5% lose nearly ten months of learning per year compared to students with just average teachers. I understand this to mean that students with the bottom-of-the-barrel teachers are almost entirely just wasting their time.

We can’t allow poor kids’ time in school to be squandered that way. We need them stimulated, educated, motivated to study, stick around and graduate. Without that degree, they’re in for a lifetime of poverty.

Yet because dismissing a tenured teacher can take up to ten years and nearly half a million dollars in legal expenses, the court found, many school districts don’t even bother to try, leaving thousands of ineffective instructors in place. In the poorest neighborhoods. Where so many kids hate school, give up, and drop out. Is it any wonder why?

In California, schools have only about eighteen months after they have hired a teacher to either fire them or to award them with strong job security. This is not even close to enough time to make an informed decision, which leaves some poor performing teachers protected in the system. Another tenure law, LIFO, the “last in first out” rule, protected senior teachers over junior ones in firings, even if the junior teacher was a terrific teacher and the senior instructor terrible. Seniority may certainly be a factor in deciding who stays, the court sensibly ruled, but it ought not be the only factor.

As the court points out, the majority of teachers themselves do not want grossly ineffective colleagues in the classroom. This isn’t a case about whether we care about teachers. Most of us love most of them. But that does not mean that the worst teachers should have such ironclad job protections that they remain in the classroom year after year, failing to educate kids – poor kids, who need good teachers the most.

So I’m convinced. California’s tenure laws were too extreme, and caused too much harm to economically challenged kids. If we are going to do more than pay lip service to the importance of children’s education, hard choices like this must be made.

Now that California’s tenure laws have been struck down, can we give all the good teachers a raise? And can we send the best teachers to the worst schools? (Where is it written that poor kids must have the worst teachers?)

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Avvo.

Image credit: De Visu / Shutterstock.com