Now that a California judge has ruled that teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education and violated their civil rights, the discussion about much-needed change to tenure laws in New York and other states can begin.
The end result of this healthy turn of events would be fewer protections for bad teachers. It is no surprise that vocal critics of the ruling include teachers unions, whose job is to protect their members. The California Teachers Association will appeal the ruling.
Even more stinging, the judge compared Vergara v. California, which argued that state tenure laws had deprived students of a decent education by leaving bad teachers in place, to the historic desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education. The image of black children fighting for the right to an education equal to that of their white counterparts is not so off-base, not when an overwhelming number of students left with the weakest teachers tend to be poor blacks and Hispanics.
In California, tenure means a job for life, and is won after only 18 months on the job, compared to three years in New York and 31 other states. Tenure laws make it virtually impossible to remove incompetent teachers.
As reported in The News, a 2008 report by the New York State School Boards Association found that it took an average of 520 days and $128,000 to complete the state hearing process to remove a tenured teacher.
Since then, New York lawmakers have tried to require hearings to conclude within a certain time frame. They have also created an expedited process by which school districts can seek to remove a teacher who is rated “ineffective” two years in a row under the new teacher evaluation system.
Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, insists the notion that it is impossible to get rid of poorly performing teachers is false. The district just has to make a case that the teacher is incompetent, he said.
But at the very least, the process is a daunting challenge and one not exercised often in New York. Only 65 teachers across the state have been fired through the hearing process since new tenure rules took effect in April 2012.
The organization that filed the California case, Students Matter, is reportedly considering filing lawsuits in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho and Kansas, among others. Meanwhile, parents in Buffalo have been watching closely. They should take careful notes.
Removing an entrenched system of job protection is never easy, but there is growing traction. And hope for students everywhere.