Time to Reform Teacher Tenure in California

Published May 25, 2010

“Last-hired, first-fired” is bad for schools, it’s bad for teachers, and it does a disservice to kids.

The American Civil Liberties Union has come out against the union-mandated practice of protecting teachers with seniority from necessary layoffs. The ACLU argued in a class-action lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District in February that “last-hired, first-fired” disproportionately harms younger teachers at predominantly low-income and minority schools.

They’re right. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on May 12 ruled the district may not lay off teachers at three of the city’s lowest-performing middle schools based on years of experience.

Los Angeles Unified isn’t the only district facing severe cuts and few options. A bill winding through the state legislature would offer a statewide remedy—and naturally the teacher unions and their allies in Sacramento are doing everything they can to stop it.

SB 955, sponsored by Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), narrowly passed the Senate Education Committee late last month after a contentious and highly partisan debate that pitted reformers against defenders of the status quo.

The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers hate the bill. They say SB 955 “scapegoats teachers during bad economic times” and won’t save any money.

Actually, the bill would merely permit schools to make their own staffing decisions by evaluating teacher effectiveness, instead of the current rules that force them to fire teachers who have less experience. The bill would help ensure students get the very best teachers, not just those who have been teaching the longest.

Lawmakers in Colorado just passed a similar bill, which would create a new evaluation system for teachers and principals that will not rely simply or exclusively on student scores on standardized state tests.

But rather than let SB 955 move forward, California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) sent the bill to the rules committee for a “cooling-off period” so “stakeholders” could weigh in further. Those defenders of the status quo will always demand the same things: more money and more job protection. Notwithstanding the budget cuts of the past two years, school spending has increased for decades without noticeable improvement in educational outcomes. Test scores are as lackluster as ever.

Echoing union talking points, Steinberg ridiculously claims the bill “abrogates due process and teacher seniority rights”—a “right” to stay in a job regardless of performance? Where is that in the Bill of Rights? Steinberg also claims the bill would encourage cash-strapped districts to dismiss teachers based on salary.

The first claim is plainly false. Huff’s bill cannot strip teachers of their due process rights; what it does is limit the scope and duration of union appeals. Many school districts are loathe to remove even the most incompetent or negligent teachers because the process is so elaborate and the expense so great.

Steinberg’s second claim is also weak. Veteran teachers are expensive but not always better. Today teacher effectiveness is not allowed to play any role in determining which teachers are retained. As a result, several “Teachers of the Year” around the state had to be let go this year. Any rule that forces a district to lay off its best teachers is foolish and ought to be changed.

SB 955 would move California toward a more rational layoff policy and set the foundation for a performance-based evaluation system. With several more difficult budget years likely, principals and superintendents need concrete performance criteria for deciding who gets a pink slip and who remains in the classroom.

Teachers should be paid for performance. A merit pay system that rewards the best while encouraging the worst to find another line of work is a necessary reform. The current system is about preserving union jobs, not giving kids the best possible education.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.