Tenure ruling affirms the right to a quality education

June 12, 2014 

State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) took it as good news when a California judge ruled this week that California’s tenure protection laws for public school teachers are unconstitutional. Berger’s office immediately emailed the Associated Press story about the ruling, apparently seeing the judge’s decision as vindicating Berger’s campaign to end teacher tenure protections in North Carolina.

But a closer look at the ruling and its background shows it is hardly the victory Berger and other conservatives appear to think it is.

The case was brought by nine students. The plaintiffs argued that California’s generous protections for teachers and its byzantine process for firing incompetent ones effectively deprived millions of California students – especially those in low-income communities – of the basic education required by the state constitution.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed. He said there are too many bad teachers (as many as one in every 20), students are deprived because of it and it’s too expensive and time consuming to fire teachers under current law. He said state statutes protecting teachers needed to be rewritten.

What matters for North Carolina is that the ruling doesn’t matter much in terms of tenure.

Tenure concept unchallenged

Treu did not have a problem with tenure itself. He found fault in granting it after 18 months, a period he found inadequate to properly evaluate a teacher’s competence. He suggested three or four years of teaching.

In North Carolina, teachers must teach four consecutive years before qualifying for career status, or tenure. That status entitles them to due process if they feel they’ve been fired without proper cause.

Treu also took issue with the length of time it takes for a contested dismissal to go through multiple appeals, but he supported teachers’ rights to the “due process.”

In California, laws protecting teachers are shaped by lobbying and contributions from powerful teacher unions. In North Carolina, a right to work state with perhaps the weakest union presence in the nation, teachers have only minimal protections.

Berger has tied a proposed 11 percent pay increase for teachers to their willingness to surrender their rights to tenure. But there is little evidence that tenure is a problem in North Carolina. School boards have plenty of time to decide whether they want to keep probationary teachers, and state law provides broad grounds for dismissal should a teacher’s performance decline after he reaches career status.

N.C.’s teacher loss

The problem in North Carolina isn’t firing teachers. It’s keeping them from quitting because of low pay, growing class sizes and the effort to take away their modest job protections.

Here is where Treu’s ruling resonates in a way that may mute conservatives’ initial applause. His ruling opened by citing Brown vs. Board of Education. It focused not on the failings of teachers, but on the rights of students. He said the California legislature must amend its tenure laws to meet its constitutional obligation to provide “each child in this state with a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education.”

That echoes the language of Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning in his ruling in the landmark Leandro case that found that every student has a right a “sound, basic education.”

Conservatives may see a victory against incompetent teachers in the California ruling, but it ultimately was a reminder of the state’s obligation to provide all its children an opportunity for a sound education. In a state where teachers are underpaid and leaving, where half the state’s teacher aides are on the chopping block, where a mere $15 per student is allotted for textbooks and where legislative leaders propose leaving the quality of education up to the state lottery, it is irresponsible lawmakers, not incompetent teachers, who must be held more accountable.

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