Schwarzenegger Drops Bomb on California Teacher Unions

Published March 1, 2005

In his January 10, 2005 State of the State address, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) proposed to overturn teacher tenure and to link teacher pay to merit and performance.

California teachers currently receive “permanent status,” or tenure, after completing a two-year probationary period. Once tenured, it is virtually impossible to fire a teacher.

“Educational Disaster”

Repeatedly calling the current system “an educational disaster,” Schwarzenegger said, “I propose that teacher pay be tied to merit, not tenure. And I propose that teacher employment be tied to performance, not to just showing up.”

The governor also said he will “introduce measures to further charter schools, vocational education, and fiscal transparency so people know how every educational dollar is spent at their local schools.”

Schwarzenegger acknowledged a battle looms. Addressing legislators directly, he said, “This is a battle of the special interests versus the children’s interests. Which will you choose?”

Numerous Obstacles

According to a Pacific Research Institute study of California’s teacher tenure system, a tenured teacher “cannot be dismissed solely for failing to improve student achievement.”

In addition, the study reported, “if students consistently fail to advance under one teacher, there is no explicit provision that allows districts to commence the dismissal process.” In his State of the State address, Schwarzenegger observed, “An educational system that rewards and protects a bad teacher at the expense of a child is wrong.”

In The Worm in the Apple (2003), an exposé of teacher unions, former Forbes editor Peter Brimelow quoted an attorney who said teacher termination hearings in California are “as detailed, as voluminous and painstaking as the O. J. [Simpson] trial.”

Brimelow’s book recounts the case of Juliet Ellery, a San Diego-area high school teacher who refused to answer students’ questions, demeaned and insulted students, and refused to adhere to lesson plans. Frustrated students circulated a petition to have her dismissed.

The district then spent eight years and $300,000 trying to fire Ellery. Although her teaching credential was eventually suspended for one year, Ellery returned to teaching after the suspension.

According to the state Office of Administrative Hearings, in the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1990 to 1999, only 13 dismissal panels were convened and just one tenured teacher’s case went through the dismissal process from beginning to end.

Additional Reform Efforts

An education reform organization, the Teaching Commission, chaired by former IBM head Louis Gerstner, recently recommended teachers’ pay be based on performance as measured by frequent individual teacher evaluations that include assessments of student achievement and teacher skills.

The commission recommended a value-added assessment system that looks at annual improvements in student performance as measured by state tests.

That system would then estimate how much a teacher has contributed to a student’s gains, factoring in projections based on past performance. A teacher who raised students’ scores significantly would be deemed effective.

In a June 2004 report, “Putting Education to the Test: A Value-Added Model for California,” the Pacific Research Institute proposed a value-added assessment model for California that includes many of the elements recommended by the commission.

Lance T. Izumi ([email protected]) is director of education studies and senior fellow in California studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

For more information …

The June 2004 report from the Pacific Research Institute, “Putting Education to the Test: A Value-Added Model for California,” by Harold C. Doran and Lance T. Izumi, is available online at

The value-added approach is described in Krista Kafer’s September 2004 School Reform News article, “Individual Student Growth Is Focus of California Analysis Model,” available online at