Research & Commentary: Teacher Tenure in California

Published June 30, 2014

The Los Angeles County Superior Court case Vergara v. California attracted national attention because of the possible ramifications it could have on teacher tenure across the nation. On June 10, Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled the state’s teacher tenure laws violate children’s right to education equality. Judge Treu wrote, “both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one) disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.” He noted the current dismissal statutes are “so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.”

Tenure laws were first enacted in 1910 in New Jersey, which granted fair-dismissal rights to college professors. The scope of tenure laws in present-day America far exceeds the modest goal of protecting professors’ academic freedom. Proponents of tenure reform cite the Vergara decision as a positive development in the fight for higher quality public education. With restrictions on tenure, schools will be able to more easily remove ineffective teachers.

Whereas professors must publish research to receive tenure, typically after a probationary period, today tenure is granted to K-12 teachers after only a few years of service. In California and four other states, teachers can receive tenure after fewer than two years of teaching, at which point 98 percent of teachers in California are granted tenure.

It is nearly impossible to remove any of the 2.3 million tenured teachers in the United States for underperformance. The process of removing a tenured teacher is costly and takes months of evaluation, after charges are filed and during which the teacher is on paid leave.

Some states, such as North Carolina, have made the process of obtaining and retaining tenure more competitive and rigorous. New York has switched to merit-based tenure. Several states, including Florida, Oregon, and others, have eliminated the word tenure from their legislation completely.

The California case is a manifestation of the nationwide concern over tenure. Granting tenure by seniority, and in some cases after only a few years, protects teachers at the expense of students and taxpayers. States that have not yet reformed their teacher tenure laws should do so, to ensure bad teachers are not treated as if they were more important than students, parents, and taxpayers.

The following documents provide more information about teacher tenure and Vergara v. California.


California Laws on Teacher Tenure, Layoffs and Dismissal Are Struck Down

The nonprofit organization Students Matter supported several California students in their attempt to attain higher-quality education through legal means. Judge Rolf M. Treu of the Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled teacher tenure violated students’ rights to education equality.

A Brief History of Tenure,8599,1859505,00.html  

Tenure originally was enacted in New Jersey in 1910 for college professors to promote academic freedom and protect scholars from being removed for publishing controversial findings. Now, virtually all elementary and high school teachers receive tenure, securing a permanent teaching job regardless of their performance.

North Carolina Ends Teacher Tenure

Many states have begun to see the link between tenure and poor student performance. Several states have taken actions to reform their tenure legislation by eliminating the word “tenure” from their statutes or switching to merit-based tenure.

Judge Rejects Teacher Tenure for California

Judge Treu ruled teacher tenure laws disproportionately affect minority students and violate students’ right to an education. He stated eliminating teacher tenure will increase equality of education by making the dismissal of ineffective teachers much easier.

Terrible Tenure

Larry Sand, a retired teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, notes 98 percent of teachers in California attain tenure. Protecting rights of teachers against unfair dismissal is justifiable, he notes, but since those basic protections were enacted years ago, unions have pushed for extreme protections at students’ expense. School districts have no way of rewarding exceptional teachers and no way of dismissing poor ones. Permanence through tenure is protecting teachers and undermining children’s education.

Research & Commentary: Objective Teacher Evaluations

Joy Pullmann of The Heartland Institute discusses the importance of objective teacher evaluations. In many states, nearly all teachers receive a “satisfactory” score. Even teachers who receive low scores are nearly impossible to remove. Research shows the best way to improve teacher quality is to give administrators and parents the power to reward exceptional teachers and remove failing ones, Pullmann notes.

Research & Commentary: Vergara v. California and Teacher Tenure

This Heartland Institute Research & Commentary discusses the arguments for and against tenure reform and some of the effects of certain tenure-based policies. In Vergara v. California, the student plaintiffs argued teacher tenure laws disproportionately affect minority students because these students are more likely to end up with an ineffective teacher. Teacher tenure laws make it difficult to remove ineffective teachers, thus denying many students a quality education.

2013 State Teacher Policy Yearbook: National Summary 

The State Teacher Policy Yearbook project arose from a simple premise: State governments can exert a great deal of control over the work of the nation’s more than three-and-a-half million public school teachers. With that in mind, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) began in 2007 an annual analysis and encyclopedic presentation of every policy states have on their books that affects teacher quality, specifically state efforts to shape teacher preparation, licensing, evaluation, and compensation. The organization’s stated goal has been to provide research-based, practical, cost-neutral recommendations to states on the best ways to improve the teaching profession.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

The Heartland Institute is available to send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus, host an event in your state, or send you further information on this or any other topic. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact The Heartland Institute’s director of government relations, John Nothdurft, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].