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Debating tenure protections for public school teachers

June 10, 2014 at 6:39 PM EDT
A California judge ruled that the state’s tenure protections for public school teachers are unconstitutional. Students who sued the state argued that the tenure policies denied their right to a quality education. Gwen Ifill gets reaction from Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, and Russlynn Ali, former assistant secretary to the Department of Education.
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GWEN IFILL: Teachers unions lost a major court case in California today, which could make it easier to fire ineffective teachers. A California judge ruled that the state’s tenure protections for public school teachers are unconstitutional.

The case was brought on behalf of and by nine students, who said those policies effectively denied their right to a quality education.

We begin with some background.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down three laws, saying they offered teachers job security at the expense of many students.

Elizabeth Vergara and her sister Beatriz are two of the students who brought the complaint. A year apart in age, they attend the same Los Angeles area high school. The sisters told the NewsHour this spring that when they were in middle school, they both sat through a history class taught by the same ineffective teacher:

ELIZABETH VERGARA, Plaintiff: He would just be at his desk, like, just using his computer or sleeping. I didn’t even learn anything. Like, I was getting behind.

GWEN IFILL: In 2012, they joined with seven other California students to file suit against the state, saying their education suffered because teacher and tenure laws prevented schools from acting in their best interest.

Teachers are eligible for tenure in California after 18 months. The students sought to get rid of that and other laws, including seniority protections and dismissal procedures they say allow poorly performing teachers to stay in the classroom.

But attorneys for the state and teachers unions told the judge the laws are key to recruiting and retaining a skilled teaching force, and were meant to ensure educators aren’t dismissed unfairly.

Fourth grade teacher Kelly Iwamoto considers that due process protection crucial:

KELLY IWAMOTO, Teacher: Because I speak out very frequently about resources being brought to our district, for lowering class sizes. And if I’m vocal, and then someone doesn’t like what I’m saying, then I can be let go for that. And I don’t think that’s fair.

GWEN IFILL: Several other states have either eliminated or limited tenure protection through law or union contracts. Lawyers for the state said they plan to appeal today’s ruling.

Now to the decision’s potential impact.

Russlynn Ali serves as an advisory board member of Students Matter, which represented the plaintiffs. She is a former assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education. And Joshua Pechthalt is the president of the California Federation of Teachers, one of the key parties who lost in today’s ruling.

Joshua Pechthalt, there are six million students in California, 325,000 students. Is this the beginning of the end of teacher tenure?

JOSHUA PECHTHALT, President, California Federation of Teachers: No, I don’t think so.

We’re going to appeal this. And I think even more importantly, we’re going to continue to work with parents and community around a vision for a quality public education that both raises up kids and also values the men and women who work with them, which is the complete opposite of what this ruling attempts to do.

GWEN IFILL: Russlynn Ali, how do we know that it’s the teachers who are failing the students and not something else?

RUSSLYNN ALI, Former Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education: Well, what the judge decided today, made it quite clear that, taken together, the statutes that guarantee lifetime employment after 18 months that don’t look at factors like whether teachers are actually teaching kids and whether they’re learning, statutes that make termination nearly impossible, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and statutes that ensure that those most new to the profession are first fired, and any time there needs to be a reduction of force for budget reasons, that, taken together, those statutes violate the quality right to an education guaranteed by California’s Constitution.

GWEN IFILL: Joshua Pechthalt, there are those who say that this is about funding. Is that part of the problem?

JOSHUA PECHTHALT: Well, I think funding is — yes, I think funding is a big part of this.

It’s funny that we’re going to — at least if the Vergara plaintiffs have their way, we are going to shape education policy based on layoffs. The California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association worked very hard to pass a progressive tax measure which stopped massive years of budget cuts.

And more obviously has to be done. But we know the solutions for public education. We know what works. We have districts that are successful. We have schools that are successful. And in those districts and in those schools, it’s where the community works collaboratively.

Education is a collaborative endeavor. The slogan it takes a village to educate a child, that happens in a cooperative way, not by attacking teachers and teacher rights.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you something from something from the judge’s ruling today, in which he talked about the last hired, first fired part of the statute? And he said it was clear to him that keeping a senior and incompetent teacher was preferable to keeping a junior — or to letting go a junior effective teacher. What do you say to that argument?

JOSHUA PECHTHALT: Well, so, number one, we don’t want to see any teachers let go during layoffs.

So, that’s the most important point. But the reason to have seniority is because seniority creates an objective criteria for determining who’s in the classroom. If it’s about teacher effectiveness, that’s very subjective. And, really, what these folks ultimately want to get at is evaluating teachers based on test scores.

That’s the only measure that they are going to be able to come up with when you’re assessing thousands and thousands of teachers in a particular district. And we have seen years now of having test scores drive an educational curriculum. It distorts what happens in the classroom. It narrows the curriculum, and it’s not good education policy. And these folks are — have the money and resources to follow that agenda.

GWEN IFILL: Let me allow — pardon me, but let me allow Russlynn Ali to respond to that.

Is there another agenda at work here?

RUSSLYNN ALI: The only agenda that the plaintiffs in this case, that the lawyers, that all of us, it’s about what is right for students. This is not about pitting students against teachers.

That — Josh, that it would be framed that way, it does a disservice to what we all need to, as California citizens, want to accomplish. And that is to ensure that our students have access to the best and most motivated teachers, that they are inspired to learn, that we transform the way our schools work, so that everyone learns better.

GWEN IFILL: And do you judge that by test scores?

RUSSLYNN ALI: Well, we ought not use quality-blind determinations, right?

This notion that seniority and how long you have been in the profession is all that guarantees whether you stay in the profession or get promoted in the profession is quality-blind. We are not talking about widgets. We are talking about children and their lives. We need to know whether they are learning. That is not to suggest that we ought to use test scores alone, but as part of an evaluation system that gauges true learning in the classroom, we ought to look at the assessments that we give kids.

GWEN IFILL: Joshua Pechthalt…

RUSSLYNN ALI: Joshua also intimated that…

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry.

RUSSLYNN ALI: Joshua also intimated that we were deciding policy based on layoffs, right?

What happens today is policy decided based on layoffs. The churn factor, that is, that in schools that serve mostly students of color, are some of our lowest-performing students and our highest-poverty schools. They suffer vacancies at a rate that is extraordinary. Those students in Los Angeles, for example, are at 68 percent more likely to have a grossly ineffective teacher if they are English-language learners.

They’re almost as likely to have an ineffective teacher if they are African-American students. We are talking about equity. We are talking about justice. Those principles ought not to fly in the face of what is in the best interest of teachers. What is in the best interest of students is in the best interest of teachers. These laws are not.

GWEN IFILL: We have less than 30 seconds, Joshua Pechthalt. What are the prospects for appeal?

JOSHUA PECHTHALT: Well, we are hopeful.

And we think the evidence is compelling that blowing up the education code in California doesn’t help with equity. If it — if doing away with seniority and due process rights was so effective, then why is it that in the states where these rights don’t exist for teachers, education is also suffering, and it’s suffering for poor and working-class kids?

There are obviously other, more compelling reasons that shape public education, not simply the teacher in front of the classroom. We want the best teachers in front of the classroom, and we want to put the resources in to raise everybody up, not create mechanisms for getting rid of people.

GWEN IFILL: We will see what happens with this in the next — now the judge has put a stay on its enforcement.

Joshua Pechthalt and Russlynn Ali, thank you both very much.

JOSHUA PECHTHALT: Thank you very much.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.