The California Supreme Court has failed to take on the case of a group of interested students and parents backed by Silicon Valley philanthropists challenging the state’s teacher tenure system.
A group of nine students had argued that making it easier to fire bad teachers would improve academic performance. They also argued that easier firings help eliminate the gap that separates white, Asian and wealthier students distancing them from their lower income, black and Latino peers
. Lower courts had ruled contradictorily on the case. The widespread disagreement on the issue was also reflected in the fact that the Court decided the issue on only a 4 to 3 basis. In effect, the ruling overturned a 2014 Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s decision that sided with the anti-tenure proponents.
California has among the strongest teacher job protection systems in the country. If a teacher invokes them, they inordinately increase the time and cost of the dismissal process. But the case has wide national implications as a model for one of the most complicated and contested issues in the whole growing demand for improvement of our deteriorated public schools.
A New Teacher Project study  argued that 86% of administrators it surveyed did not attempt to terminate teachers they knew to be underperforming or acting improperly because of fear of the time and money of the overturning the tenure process.
But supporters of tenure respond that administrative red tape is the chief reason for this, citing lack of appropriate evaluations in most cases as the reason why terminations are so difficult. It can cost as much as $250,000 to pursue some states’ elaborate administrative process to fire a tenured teacher. Furthermore, supporters of strong tenure restrictions argue they prevent the ousting of teachers for irrelevant or controversial issues and thus help to preserve an atm,opshere of free inquiry in the system.
Unlike college faculty tenure, where educators must demonstrate their continued relevance by publishing research papers and periodic college attendance, K-12 educators are only required to receive for a number of years satisfactory evaluations.
Fortytwo of the 50 states require only three years or less before achieving tenure. From 2002 to 2009, New York City Public Schools, for example, denied tenure to only 3% of the teachers who had been teaching for three years, and that only after “reforms” had been put in place. Since teachers are at their least competence during their first years, it seems unlikely that 97% of new teachers deserved life-time job protection after only three years or less on the job.
This dismissal process has led to a widespread abuse. Many school districts use “secret buyouts” to get rid of underperforming or misbehaving teachers rather than face the onerous and expensive formal process of dismissal. The public often has no accurate explanation of why a teacher resigned with the agreements often including silence from both parties.
The case has been closely watched, not only in California, but countrywide. The question of tenure has become entertained with growing tensions between teacher unions, school leaders, lawmakers and well-funded education reform groups. All have strong views on the issue of tenure with the politically powerful teachers unions defending maximum interpretation of tenure law and critics of the growing school standards crisis arguing that failure to fire teachers with the least seniority keep ineffective instructors in the classroom, particularly in already low-performing inner-city schools.
Florida, North Carolina, Kansas and Idaho have repealed their earlier tenure laws outright, phased out tenure or removed due process provisions, though Idaho’s effort to abolish tenure later was reversed by voters in a referendum. Sixteen states insert teachers’ performance ratings as a component of decisions to grant tenure. Seven states now require cashiered teachers to be returned to probationary status if their performance is rated unsatisfactory. Another 11 states require that teacher performance be the primary consideration with Washington adding this requirement only n 2015-16. Ten states specifically prohibit the use of tenure status or seniority.
The refusal of California’s highest court to take up the issue strikes us as a grave mistake. The issue which is so intimate to the problem of a general consensus that public education is failing, particularly at a time when galloping technology requires higher and higher levels of knowledge to meet the daily requirements of any workplace. Ultimately, of course, the requirements for public education must reside with the legislators. But until then a discussion of the issues in the courts is a necessity. We hope that the proponents of the issue will find a way, perhaps ny taking it into the federal courts, for the airing that it must get if progress is to be made in solving our growing educational crisis.