School principals are often held accountable for student outcomes, but are limited when it comes down to making one of the most crucial decisions in determining student success—which teacher is in the classroom. Today, L.A. Superior Judge Rolf Treu struck down five teacher protection laws as unconstitutional, a decision which could make California next on a long list of states that have already reformed draconian teacher protection laws.
In the highly publicized California Superior Court case Vergara vs. California, nine public school students challenged several state laws and collective bargaining rules that severely inhibit principals' influence over school personnel, and oftentimes work against the best interest of students.
"School districts, like any other organization, need to be able to manage their workforce in a rational way with a primary focus on putting the highest quality teachers in front of students," said Students Matter attorney Theodore Boutrous during the trial's opening statements.
Under current law, California teachers are eligible for tenure, or permanent employment, after just 16 months on the job. Once granted tenure it is prohibitively costly and time-consuming to fire ineffective teachers in California, which encourages principals to instead shuffle poorly performing teachers to different schools. Usually, schools in low-income neighborhoods with the most disadvantaged students end up with these teachers.
Fortunately, this is not the case in many other parts of the nation.
Just last year, North Carolina passed legislation that removes teacher tenure in 2018, replacing "career status" with one-, two- or four-year contracts contingent upon performance. Several other states and school districts have adopted employment laws that give principals autonomy over hiring and firing practices while, importantly, providing teachers the opportunity to work with principals on employment arrangements. For instance, instead of having a district office place teachers at schools, Colorado's mutual consent hiring requires that both the teacher and school principal agree that they're a good match.
Unlike California—which currently doesn't have a process for identifying and excessing bad teachers—in 29 states teachers are held accountable for their performance and classroom ineffectiveness is grounds for dismissal. For example, in Florida and Oklahoma teachers are eligible for dismissal after two years of "unsatisfactory performance" rankings on their annual evaluations.
In the case of layoffs, California principals must give the boot to the newest teachers regardless of merit, whereas 22 states mandate seniority cannot be the only factor considered in making layoff decisions. Using a wider range of criteria, including how they perform in the classroom, places a higher value on quality teachers and allows principals to retain the best ones.
Research shows that getting good-quality teachers into all classrooms is the number one school reform we can make. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that the most effective teachers improve student's long-term outcomes including the likelihood of going to college, earning a higher salary and living in a better neighborhood.
In his testimony last February, Harvard Economist Dr. Raj Chetty told the courts, "If we replace an ineffective teacher with a teacher of average quality the impacts would be on the same order as ending the financial crisis again and again and again, year after year. It would be a dramatic effect on the American economy in the long run."
School leaders need to be empowered to make decisions about school personnel and the Vergara case shines a spotlight on this critical issue. The court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs is a huge win that will finally require California policymakers to reform the state's antiquated teacher protection laws. The Golden State could be the next to join the nationwide movement that gives local control back to schools, and demands all students have access to a quality education.