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April 3, 2014

Nine students sue to end teacher tenure in California

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Sisters Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara attend public high school in a low-income, mostly Hispanic section of northern Los Angeles. Now they are also two of nine student plaintiffs in a case known as Vergara v. California that may end teacher tenure in their state.

The case is challenging two main areas of state law: permanent employment and dismissal statutes that make it difficult to get rid of bad teachers, and the seniority-based layoff system they say makes it hard to keep good, less-senior teachers during difficult times.

The plaintiffs say the laws deny students their right to a quality education, guaranteed by the California constitution, and affect poor and minority students more. If successful, experts say the legal strategy could be used to challenge education laws in other states.

One law being challenged is the statute that governs teacher layoffs. California is one of ten states that requires seniority be considered to determine who stays, and who goes during budget cuts; the so-called “Last-In, First-Out” law.

“I couldn’t think of a more destructive statute for students, staff, in a system,” said John Deasy, superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, about the law. “We have had to lay off very effective teachers in the same school that we are documenting a teacher for dismissal.”

The Vergara lawsuit also challenges laws governing teacher tenure. After a two-year probationary period, one of the shortest in the country, most teachers get permanent employment status.

Superintendent Deasy says that permanent status means the LA school district can end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire a single, underperforming teacher. A process, he says, that can take a decade.

However, on the other side of the debate, Joshua Pechthalt of the California Federation of Teachers, says that tenure encourages teachers to stay on the job, despite often difficult classroom conditions.

“The bigger problem we have in California and I think nationally is that we can’t keep teachers in the profession,” he said. “Classes are overcrowded. There aren’t enough resources. So that really is the bigger issue in public education.  And that’s creating conditions that make it attractive for people to make this a lifelong profession.”

Additionally, the unions say a teacher’s “effectiveness” is difficult to measure, and that students don’t necessarily connect with every teacher. This makes it difficult to make a case for dismissal on the testimony of a few students.

The judge will deliver a verdict in the case in the coming week.


Warm up questions
  1. Have you ever had a teacher who you didn’t get along with? Was it their personality or the quality of their teaching?
  2. How should schools evaluate teachers? On students’ reviews? Test scores? Observations from other teachers or administrators? What are the risks and benefits to these three ideas? Can you think of other ways that teachers could be evaluated?
Discussion questions

  1. In a seniority-based layoff system, the newest teacher to the school is the first let go if there isn’t enough money in the budget to keep all the teachers. Is this fair? If it’s not fair, who should be cut and how should it be decided?
  2. In many school districts across the country, teachers obtain tenure after only a few years. This means once teachers have had a few years being observed more frequently they automatically are guaranteed permanent status – which makes it very hard for them to be fired. Is this a good system? Explain your answer. If your answer is no, how would you change it?
  3. It is a fact that more than half of teachers leave the profession after a few years. Why do you think that is? If you were a teacher facing overcrowded classrooms and a lack of resources, what would do? What could make teaching a more attractive job?
 Writing Prompt

In a well thought out response, describe how you think teachers should be evaluated. Make sure to support your arguments with examples.

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