Get This: A Judge Puts Kids Above Teachers Unions

Should job security for teachers continue to trump the educational rights of students, especially poor ones?

Education reformers and their teachers union foes seemed equally stunned on Tuesday by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling that found California’s teacher tenure system—which makes it nearly impossible for public schools to fire teachers—to be an affront to the equal protection clause in the state constitution.

This may be just the first step in a long legal process that pits a group of poor kids and reformers against the state, the powerful California Teachers Association, and its allies in the legislature, but this was big national news—and the latest volley in an ongoing debate about education reform.

The judge agreed with the plaintiff's argument that tenure and other statutes “result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low–income and minority students.” It’s such a tortuous and costly process for school districts to eliminate bad teachers that few even bother trying, the judge ruled.

The case came down to priorities: Should job security for teachers continue to trump the educational rights of students, especially poor ones?

This case included plaintiffs from the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation into the district’s firing process and concluded that it rarely ousted the incompetent. In fact, the district struggled to even boot teachers accused of horrific misconduct. In one notorious case, LAUSD paid a teacher $40,000 to get him to drop an appeal of his firing after he was accused of feeding children his own semen.

That 2012 case sparked angry calls for reform of the dismissal system, but the CTA quashed the effort. A subsequent bill that passed the legislature would actually have made it harder to get rid of abusive teachers, and earned a veto from the governor. The state senate finally approved some reforms earlier this week, but the watered-down bill only applies to teachers accused of egregious misconduct.

Given such raw displays of CTA power, it’s clear that nothing will change without a court directive. And seeing how difficult it is to get rid of teachers that are accused of crimes, it’s easy to understand the plaintiffs' point: Thousands of incompetent teachers are left in the classroom.

The judge also targeted the “last in, first out” law, which bases layoffs on seniority. “No matter how gifted the junior teacher, and no matter how grossly ineffective the senior teacher, the junior gifted one … is separated from them,” explained the judge.

A defense witness testified that only between 1 and 3 percent of teachers are “grossly ineffective,” but Treu noted that “the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250,” given the state’s 275,000 active teachers. That’s a lot of teachers inflicting harm on thousands of students, without even considering the merely mediocre ones.

“We the people should call upon the governor and attorney general, who defended this case against the minority children, to stop the appeals,” said Gloria Romero, a former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles. “The reason we could achieve victory was this was done in the independent branch of government where CTA money doesn’t play.” She has asked Gov. Jerry Brown to call for a special legislative session and to “examine your Jesuit conscience and do the right thing for poor children.”

In response, CTA blasted Romero as part of “yet another attempt by the usual corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession.” It boasted that the state would appeal, even though the attorney general’s office said it is still considering the matter.

“We didn’t think, honestly, that we would have a chance of winning,” said an exuberant Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, who supported the plaintiffs. “We just wanted to go to trial and force [the union] to defend the indefensible under oath.”

If the ruling is upheld, the legislature will need to defy the CTA and revisit teacher dismissal laws. But Austin is right that the real change needs to come from the grassroots, with the public demanding that the state start putting the education of kids above the job security demanded by the unions representing those kids’ teachers.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at steven.greenhut@utsandiego.com.

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  • Cis Shitlord||

    And of course, the execrable Diane Ravitch is outraged about this. And of course, HuffPo gives her a platform and publishes no opposing viewpoint:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/.....84237.html

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I wonder what in Ravitch's life made her turn from Bush's education gunsel to frothing-at-the-mouth Proggie teacher's union inquisitor. Was she molested by a charter school advocate? Did William Bennett piss in her coffee cup? Did she ask Yong Zhao out on a date and get turned down? I really want to know.

  • Homple||

    If you find out, let us know because I'm mighty curious myself.

  • Raven Nation||

    Take down, and partial explanation here:

    http://www.city-journal.org/20.....vitch.html

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    The blog has all the subtlety of an Occupy Wall Street poster.

    Ha! I love it. I'm too lazy to look for it now, but you must read Ratfink's blog screed where she goes batshit crazy when she found out that a new Floridian arts and music-based charter school was founded with the help of Pitbull.

    Her entire argument boiled down to 3 premises:

    1.) The topic of Pitbull's songs is his appreciation for women with lindos culos.

    2.) Songs about women with large and shapely asses do not appeal to the 70-something, White Jewish woman demographic.

    3.) Therefore, charter schools are worse than Hitler.

  • Swiss Servator, CH yeah!||

    That is some awesome display of proglogic there, HM. Please do NOT go back and read that - concentrated DERP that strong can be harmful!

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    Maybe she genuinely believes both that teachers are not to blame as much as some people do blame them. Were her positions on that issue ever different?

  • Cis Shitlord||

    Yes. Get someone to read this to you:

    http://www.city-journal.org/20.....vitch.html

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    This seems to summarize nicely as: Ravitch used to agree and work with us here at the Manhattan Institute and now she disagrees with us, and clearly she is wrong and we are still right, so what happened to her?

  • Cis Shitlord||

    Actually, it summarizes as: she used to write scholarly, academically-supportable things about school reform, and then she decided fuck that and started writing ad hominem-laced screeds in favor of the status quo.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Maybe there is a point where people just say no more. It needs to happen in so many areas including education. Wake up folks. These people do not have your best interest in mind. Only their own.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Almighty JB
    You are correct in your analysis. The teacher's unions only care about collecting dues and protecting the bad and the egregious in the government monopoly school system.
    What to do?
    I propose public education be eliminated and have the parents pay for their children's education.
    How's that for radical!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Won't somebody please think of the children's teachers?

  • AlmightyJB||

    But if we allow these pleb kids to learn english, science, and math they might be successful and come live in our neighborhoods! Better to just give them condoms to try and keep their popukation down. /progprig

  • ace_m82||

    "Should job security for teachers continue to trump the educational rights of students, especially poor ones?"

    I'll say it again, live by the positive rights, die by the positive rights...

  • sarcasmic||

    Beware of any politician who claims to support education, because that usually means they support the unions.

  • ||

    Anything which chisels into the power and invulnerability of these public sector unions is a good thing. They are literally institutionalized unaccountability, and we've all seen what that results in (especially with the cops). We'll only start to return to a semblance of sanity if some measure of accountability is applied.

  • JW||

    The garment rending over this is just too much. Awwwww, no tenure? You poor, poor thing.

    Wait, I don't have tenure at my job. How is it that I'm not fired from all my jobs by unscrupulous bosses and eating dog food to survive?

  • Cdr Lytton||

    As much as I like the teachers unions taking it in the shorts, crafting educational rights out of the equal protection clause is just as stupid and ends up like this.

    Also, the squirrels need to take it in the shorts too.

  • Sevo||

    "A defense witness testified that only between 1 and 3 percent of teachers are “grossly ineffective,”"

    Yeah, because teachers self-select for really talented angels, they are different than any other occupation in the world.
    I'm surprised there weren't audible snorts when the guy floated *that* pile of bullshit.

  • John||

    So only one to three percent of kids get deprived on any chance of an education for that year. What is the issue here?

  • Homple||

    Teachers' results are driven by incentives and constrained by rules and the raw material (i.e. students) they have to work with.

    Put un-fireable teachers forbidden to discipline in front of classes full of incorrigible thugs and the outcomes are guaranteed to be bad.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    The answer to John's question lies in Homple's statements: you have to compare anything to its alternative, not utopia. What would you get when you put easy to fire teachers forbidden to discipline in front of classes full of incorrigible thugs in an occupation constrained by rules and the raw material they have to work with? The answer is you put the administrators in total charge, and they tend to be the worst of the teachers. If those can't do, teach, then those who can't teach become administrators of teachers.

  • califernian||

    The problem is that there is a public school system.

  • John||

    I think both cop and teachers' union contracts can be unconstitutional. This is especially true in states that have education clauses in their constitutions. If the state has a duty under the state constitution to provide a public education to every child, how can it then sign union contracts that make it impossible to fire incompetent teachers? They are using the union contract as a way to get out of their constitutionally mandated duty to provide education.

    To give an analogy, imagine if a state constitution mandated the building and maintaining of an airport in the capital and then the state signed a maintenance contract that contained no enforcement provisions nor any standard of maintenance and as a result the airport became nearly unusable due to lack of maintenance. I don't see how a court could uphold such a contract.

  • BilboTeabaggins||

    Interesting thought. Rational basis review would presumably uphold it, right?

  • John||

    Rational basis is for equal protection. I am not sure what standard you would apply to a state education clause. Even under rational basis, I think you could still strike down the most egregious contracts. What is the rational basis for signing a contract that makes it impossible to fire even the worst teacher?

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    The rational basis would be one offered for having a tenure system overall, not in the case of a specific teacher.

  • John||

    Is a rational basis for some form of tenure? Sure. But there isn't one for tenure protections that are so extreme no teacher can ever be removed. It is not that there can't be some form of tenure. It is that at some point tenure protections get so extreme that they are no longer rationally consistent with the state's duty to provide an equal education to all its students.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    The opinion is a ludicrous one. It's really an example of judicial activism par excellence. Basically it says 'Precedent says there is a right to equality in education, but it should say there is a right to quality of education, and I think these rules are counter to a quality education, and its bound to have a disparate impact on minorities, so we're back to equality and they are unconstitutional.' In any other setting we'd see such reasoning as absurd.

  • John||

    That would make sense if these contracts were not so absurd. It would be one thing if the contracts provided for some accountability and some judge somewhere didn't think it was enough. That, however, is not what is happening here. These contracts provide no accountability. The state has an obligation to provide an equal education. If it signs contracts that make it impossible to fire teachers, no matter how bad they are, it by definition cannot accomplish that since the contract is condemning some kids to an incompetent teacher. The contract ensures that there is no way to fire a bad teacher. No one is saying that the state has to achieve perfect results. They are just saying there has to be some kind of mechanism in place for the state to at least try and achieve equal results.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    Is it really impossible to fire them? I hear that in media accounts but that strikes me as dubious.

  • John||

    That is a question of fact. This judge seems to think so. Regardless, I think if a contract makes it impossible or close to impossible to fire them, it fails even the rational relationship test.

  • Bo Cara Esq.||

    He says there was substantial evidence it was expensive and time consuming. Because of the weird choice of strict scrutiny he said it was the states burden anyway

  • Rhywun||

    Do a search on Reason for "How do I fire an incompetent teacher", and you decide.

  • Homple||

    This will be a triumph only when the permanent, non-appealable firing of lousy teachers becomes routine and happens often. The triumphant kids will be a lot older by then.

    Good start nonetheless.

  • CE||

    The triumph will come when a majority of the people refuse to send their kids to government schools.

  • Muzzle of Bees||

    I'm a California Teacher and a card-carrying CTA member. Not by choice, mind you. Public school teachers are mandated to pay dues to CTA as a condition of employment (unless you're in a charter school).

    This right here is the main thing that needs to be changed. CTA can act with impunity and claim the support of all public educators because we all pay into it whether we want to or not. The CTA member newsletter actually had the audacity to tell me who it was that "I" supported on the ballot. That kind of stuff actually angers a lot of teachers, but there aren't a lot of other options available if you want to be in education. Eliminate the forced union contracts and you'd see that not as many teachers hold to the party line as you think. If a noteworthy percentage of teachers bailed on CTA then legislative battles with the union would be much less daunting.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    What if each school had an in-house "voucher" system? Instead of the school assigning students to teachers, allow the students to assign themselves to teachers based on whatever criteria they felt to be most important, and then set individual teachers' salaries based on head count.

    It wouldn't take long to sort the wheat from the chaff, I suspect.

  • John||

    Get rid of the salary structure and schools big against each other for star teachers. If you can't attract many students, you might not get fired but you won't get paid very much.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    You're assuming that for the students involved their primary criteria is academic improvement, as opposed to "Mr. Brooks's class is awesome! We just watch movies all day!"

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Eliminate the forced union contracts and you'd see that not as many teachers hold to the party line as you think.

    I have known quite a few teachers, over the years. The actual in-the-classroom teachers were almost all great people, focused on the students, very dedicated to doing a good job. The ones who gravitated toward administration, not so.

  • John||

    And the ones who gravitated towards union leadership not so much.

  • Muzzle of Bees||

    I've given a little thought to running for union leadership, just to provide an alternative voice and a little pushback, but I don't think it'd be worth it for all the vitriolic outrage I'd get from the dyed-in-the-wool members.

  • JW||

    No to mention the flaming bags of horse heads on your doorstep, every night.

  • sarcasmic||

    I think back to high school and there was one teacher who was a raging bitch who didn't give a shit about the students. She went into administration.

  • califernian||

    All of these problems and issues go away gracefully and simply if you just get rid of public schools altogether. The public schools are not in any way there for educating kids. If you want to have the government redistribute money to poor people so they can educate their kids, give them a check.

    Public provisioning of education is a scam.

  • toolkien||

    I was about the say pretty much the same thing. All this discussion to boil down to socialist education doesn't work, just like all socialism doesn't work. If it gets anything accomplished, it's at a cost way too high, and more often than not it doesn't accomplish much of anything than line the pockets of the apparatchiki. For one hundred years we've piled more socialism on top of socialism as it fails and instead of getting washed away, is simply reinforced with more socialism. Now we've got many rotten schools and rotten roads and rotten cops and the list goes on. We're right on the precipice of either rolling it back or going full tilt into hardline. And if it's the latter, I'm going to be on the wrong side of the razor wire regardless of it's a hard left or a hard right.

  • KalkiDas||

    Educational rights?! This _is_ a Libertarian web site, am I correct?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    You're assuming that for the students involved their primary criteria is academic improvement, as opposed to "Mr. Brooks's class is awesome! We just watch movies all day!"

    No, I'm not. Hence, "allow the students to assign themselves to teachers based on whatever criteria they felt to be most important."

    Teachers who find themselves in an empty room will either starve or be incentivized to respond to the needs and wishes of their customers.

  • CE||

    How about letting parents decide where to send their kids, and they can't make the rest of the town pay?

  • Uncle Jay||

    You're absolutely right CE. Parents should pay for their children's education, not the taxpayer. It is time to end the government run school system and let the market take over. After all, if its good enough for the rich elitists republican and democrat's kids, then private schools are good enough for the rest of us.

  • Frozen Costume||

    Teachers Unions Are Good for Kids

  • Richard Rider||

    Correct -- with slight modification: "Teachers Unions Are Good for Kids OF TEACHERS."

    In urban school districts, up to one-third of public school teachers send THEIR kids to private schools.

  • Richard Rider||

    The whining union apologists quoted all indicate the children of California will be harmed by this ruling -- falsely claiming that tenure is essential to quality education -- that without tenure, the children will suffer.

    But these whiners have no answer for the fact that private schools have no such tenure, and yet these schools provide a quality education -- indeed, usually a superior education -- for lower average cost.

    Moreover, the graphic in this WALL ST JOURNAL article of the 50 states' handling of seniority destroys that argument. It turns out that 40 of the 50 states give seniority/tenure no special status in the layoff process, though it can be one of several factors to consider in many of these states. There is no tenure guarantee in 40 states.
    http://online.wsj.com/articles.....1402422428

    Do such non-tenure policies in those 40 states result in their student performance being far inferior to our (union-touted) California public schools?

    Au contraire.

    While California public school teachers are the 4th highest paid in the nation, CA students rank 48th in math achievement, 49th in reading.
    http://www.lao.ca.gov/reports/.....10511.aspx page 36
    and
    w.cde.ca.gov/fg/fr/sa/cefavgsalaries.asp

  • Michael Price||

    "A defense witness testified that only between 1 and 3 percent of teachers are “grossly ineffective,” "
    So then that's OK? These guys aren't just not the best, they're not even just bad they're "grossly ineffective". Does any other business tolerate from 1 in 100 up to 1 in 33 people being "grossly ineffective"? Bear in mind that's the DEFENSE witness talking.

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