In May 2012, nine public school children, supported by the group Students Matter, filed a lawsuit against the state of California challenging provisions of state law that they said interfere with their right to a quality education.
In summer 2014, a state court ruled in Vergara v. California that California’s teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional and make it harder for low-income and minority students to access a high-quality education.
What is tenure and what does the Vergara case have to say about it?
In California, most teachers are currently granted tenure after two years on the job, which means they can’t be fired without just cause and basically guarantees them a job for the rest of their career. The logic behind tenure is that it protects teachers’ academic freedom—their ability to teach whatever is in the best interest of their students—and ensures that there’s a fair process in place if teachers are dismissed. Tenure means much stronger job security.
Vergara didn’t find that teacher tenure is a bad idea, necessarily. But it did find that the way California has approached tenure is off track in three important ways.
1) California grants tenure too early. Most states require at least three years before making tenure decisions. Only five other states have a waiting period as short as California’s. Our early deadline means that schools have to make decisions before it’s really clear whether a teacher is going to be a strong instructor or a good fit for the school.
2) Protections for tenured teachers are too extreme. It’s very difficult to dismiss a tenured teacher and very expensive. According to the court, it can cost a district between $50,000 and $450,000 to bring a dismissal case to conclusion, win or lose. As a result, school districts rarely try to get rid of ineffective teachers, who then continue to do harm in the classroom to the education of thousands of children. This required quick decision on granting practically a permanent, life-long job means districts also have a perverse incentive to dismiss new teachers before they hit the two-year mark, when it’s still too early to make a fair judgment.
3) LIFO should go. Imagine a school that has 800 students, but next year only expects to have 700 students. As a result, the school will have to lay off teachers. Right now, California law says that the only factor that can determine who gets laid off is seniority. Therefore, the most junior teacher, the last one hired, has to be the first one dismissed. This policy is commonly known as “last in, first out” or LIFO. The court ruled that LIFO prevents school leaders from retaining the best teachers.
Overall, Vergara found that these three statutes allow too many low-performing teachers to stay in the teaching force. Since these teachers are more likely to serve in high-need schools in poorer neighborhoods, the statutes have a particularly negative impact on low-income and minority students.
Why does Vergara vs California matter?
Vergara is important because it affirms the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a high-quality public education for every child, regardless of race and income. Every child should be afforded the same level of resources and opportunities, including access to a great teacher.
Teachers have a profound effect on a child’s education, according to a significant amount of research. One study found the impact of a student having an outstanding teacher (one in the 84th percentile of all teachers) for one year versus an average teacher (50th percentile) has an estimated positive impact of $20,000 on that student’s lifetime earnings. While the changes called for by Vergara will by no means ensure a great teacher in every classroom—for that we need to make sure teachers are equipped with effective training, collaborative work environments, strong school leadership, and ample support—they would certainly help.
What does this mean for my school and my child?
California families won’t see changes at their own schools and districts for some time. As of summer 2015, the Vergara decision is being appealed to a higher court. Several bills in the state legislature tried to enact some of the components of Vergara but were voted down. Until a final decision is reached, the state’s tenure laws are likely to remain the same. In the meantime, the decision reminds us just how important it is that every school hire and retain great teachers.
What can I do?
You can help your school identify great teachers. One way is simply to provide feedback about your child’s experience. Is your child struggling with a particular concept, or is there something going on at home that might be affecting their work? This is all important information to share. If your child’s teacher is doing a great job, tell the principal. Education World has some helpful tips for how you can identify a great teacher. Even better, write a formal letter to the principal with this information. The Center for Parent Information has a general guide to letter writing. If you think your child’s teacher is ineffective, it is important to convey those concerns to the principal and the superintendent, and talk about it with other parents, too.
Some schools involve parents and students in their hiring process via review boards, made up of parents and teachers, which make recommendations to the principal about new hires. Ask your principal if this exists at your school.
It’s important to keep in mind that while these are great ways to get involved, they’re not requirements. It’s your school’s responsibility to ensure that your child is taught by an effective teacher. That’s the lesson of Vergara.
To learn more and get updates on the latest progress of the lawsuit, sign up at Students Matter.