Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled last week that five provisions of the state education code are unconstitutional, including teach tenure, sending shock waves from Eureka to San Diego. The decision is a seismic event in the public education landscape, equivalent to a 9.0 on the Richter Scale.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Welch funded the lawsuit that brought about the ruling through his group, Students Matter.
I should stipulate that I believe classroom teaching is one of the most important and difficult professions. It takes an enormous skill set, including knowledge of subject(s), discipline techniques, organization, patience, hard work, physical/mental stamina, developmental awareness and more. Teachers are far too often victims of an underfunded and fractured system. They should be afforded job protection in collective bargaining agreements in meaningful ways.
But should tenure be a fundamental right of protection for K-12 teachers? This is a question I have grappled with for many years. The question was answered in a powerful and controversial opinion rendered by Judge Treu, and I fully agree with his opinion.
We call it tenure, but the lawful term used in California is “permanent.” The Permanent Employment Statute was struck down as unconstitutional. Judge Treu wrote in his 16-page decision, "This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statue."
During my teaching career I viewed tenure from the perspective of being safe to express my personal views when challenged by students in the context of the subject at hand. I did not fear geting capriciously fired for my personal beliefs. But tenure was never intended to be an impediment to removing teachers who underperform or are ineffective on behalf of their students. The work is too important to allow mediocre teachers to remain after attempts at corrective feedback and coaching.
Nothing is final, though, as Judge Treu stayed his momentous decision pending appeals.
His decision reads, "This Court is confident that the independent judiciary of this state is no less dedicated to the protection of reasonable due process rights of teachers than it is of protecting the rights of children ..."
I say amen to that.
The decision also cites evidence that African-American and Latino students in California are 68 percent and 43 percent more likely, respectively, to be taught by a teacher in the bottom 5 percentile.
As a former principal of elementary and middle schools in Santa Clara County for nearly two decades, I was successful in dismissing two permanent (tenured) teachers. It took enormous time and documentation to achieve the result, and that meant time was taken from leading and supervising others to achieve personal and school goals. The system, as currently structured, stacks the deck against principals. Principals are at-will management, while the majority of their teaching staffs are defined as permanent employees.
In a book published last week by Richard Whitmire, titled "On The Rocketship,” he quotes one of my columns about approving more Rocketship schools (page 82):
"The status quo was unacceptable. ...There is no doubt that the vast preponderance of teachers, principals and superintendents work tirelessly to see that all children succeed. However, they sometimes fall victim to a system that works in favor of adults rather than children.”
Whitmire continues: "Change, concluded Di Salvo, will only come about through disruptive forces.”
The historical decision rendered by Judge Treu brings another disruptive force to the Board of Education—the first was high-quality charter schools, whose teachers are usually non-union and hired at will. One of the 10 student defendants who sued, leading to Teu’s decision, is Daniella Martinez from Alum Rock School District. Her mother, Karen Martinez, was recently elected to the Alum Rock School Board.
Next week, I will write about the decision we’ll reach tonight to authorize or deny a Rocketship Charter in Alum Rock Union School District. Their Board on a 3-2 vote denied that charter last month. Trustee Martinez voted to approve it.