Ta-Ta To Teacher Tenure?

Emily Badger summarizes yesterday’s big education news:

A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday struck down state laws in California governing teacher tenure, ruling against teachers unions in a sweeping decision that’s expected to upend how teachers are hired and fired in the state – and possibly far beyond it.

The case, Vergara v. California, will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court and could set off similar legal challenges in other states. Brought on behalf of nine public-school students in the state, the case challenged a set of laws, including one that gives teachers in California tenure as early as 18 months into their careers. Another requires layoffs on a last-in/first-out basis that excludes consideration of teacher quality.

Students Matter, a Silicon Valley-based group that brought the suit, argued that these policies make it hard to fire “grossly ineffective” teachers and to retain high-quality junior ones, and that low-income minority students disproportionately suffer as bad teachers are shuttled into their classrooms.

Alexander Nazaryan cheers the ruling:

[Judge Rolf M.] Treu vividly depicted the dreary state of affairs I witnessed as a public school teacher: tenure is awarded for no reason other than seniority, as if merely showing up every day were an incredible feat of pedagogy. It is so expensive to remove a teacher (perhaps as much as $450,000 in California), that most school districts don’t even bother, instead shuffling the lemons to a dropout factory where no one will notice their baleful presence.

And it perpetuates the noxious practice known as last-in-first-out, which privileges seniority above all other attributes, so that when reductions in the teaching force occur, they mandatorily target the most junior teachers, regardless of how good those teachers may be. As it happens, the youngest teachers often teach at the most challenging schools, so that the inane LIFO rule (I couldn’t think of a less appealing acronym if I tried) further destabilizes the very institutions that crave stability.

Meanwhile, Ravitch is predictably pissed:

This is a big win for the Billionaire Boys Club. Name a state that has no due process rights for teachers and excellent public schools. One?

Yglesias considers the politics at stake:

Teachers unions, obviously, think Treu got it wrong. And they will have many liberals allies who regard the anti-tenure movement as thinly veiled union-busting. What’s more, even though conservatives will largely cheer this policy outcome, the legal logic isn’t one conservatives normally embrace.

Treu is essentially advancing a disparate impact theory, holding that a policy that has no discriminatory intent is nonetheless unconstitutional because its negative consequences fall much more heavily on minority kids than on white ones. Typically this is a left-wing theory of how anti-discrimination policy should work that conservatives view very skeptically. The particular politics of public education have scrambled the normal ideological alignment somewhat in this case.

Chait elaborates:

What makes the California lawsuit fascinating is that it employs a classic liberal legal strategy. The plaintiffs show (1) current tenure rules make it nearly impossible for schools to fire chronically ineffective teachers, (2) having a chronically ineffective teacher imposes irreparable harm on a child in the form of lost wages, and (3) chronically ineffective teachers are disproportionately concentrated in schools with high numbers of minorities students. The third point turns the case into an equal protection violation.

Eric Posner is skeptical:

I do not believe that this case will be affirmed on appeal; or if it is, I believe that it will be distinguished away to oblivion. Courts have had nothing but trouble trying to enforce “social rights” like the right to an education where those rights exist (in states like California, and in many foreign countries), and generally give up. …

[I]f, as the court says, these rules discriminate against low-income and minority students because school authorities funnel the grossly incompetent teachers whom they can’t fire to the weakest schools, isn’t the proper remedy to forbid this behavior directly? The court is never very clear whether it is enforcing a right to education (meaning a right not to be taught by a grossly incompetent teacher) or a right not to be discriminated against (a right not to be taught by a grossly incompetent teacher because you are a minority or are poor).

But Dana Goldstein argues that even if the ruling stands, it may not be a boon for students:

For high-poverty schools, hiring is at least as big of a challenge as firing, and the Vergara decision does nothing to make it easier for the most struggling schools to attract or retain the best teacher candidates.

From 2009 to 2011, the federal government offered 1,500 effective teachers in 10 major cities – including Los Angeles – a $20,000 bonus to transfer to an open job at a higher poverty school with lower test scores. In the world of public education, $20,000 is a major financial incentive. All these teachers were already employed by urban districts with diverse student populations; they weren’t scared of working with poor, non-white children. Yet less than a quarter of the eligible teachers chose to apply for the bonuses. Most did not want to teach in the schools that were the most deeply segregated by race and class and faced major pressure to raise test scores. …

The lesson here is that California’s tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren’t the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state’s middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods.

Zooming out, Stephen Sawchuk notes that the ruling comes amid “a contentious national debate about teacher quality and teachers’ unions”:

Nationally, some 16 states have taken steps to tie tenure-granting to teacher performance; seven return teachers with weak evaluations to probationary status. Florida and Kansas have both eliminated either the continuing employment or due process associated with tenure; North Carolina did, too, but that move was recently declared unconstitutional.