Reactions mixed over court’s teacher tenure ruling

06/26/2014

A court ruling earlier this month overturned California’s tenure laws as unconstitutional, drawing criticism from some West Marin union representatives and administrators.

After a lengthy trial, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu sided with nine students who said their right to an equal education was being infringed by teachers’ job protections. Saying the laws serve no compelling interest, the decision struck down the designation of permanent status after two years, a first-in-first-out layoff policy and a laborious dismissal process.

Civil rights challenges have toppled school desegregation and imbalances in funding, but the decision marked the first legal challenge to tenure laws. Judge Treu’s ruling was stayed pending appeals. But even before the lawsuit makes its way through the legal system, elected representatives will likely confront the issue in the legislature or in the November race for state superintendent between incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck as the rest of the nation debates how to evaluate teacher performance.

“I think people underestimate the benefits of having teachers feel secure in their jobs. It allows a teacher to put their heart and soul into the position,” said Laura Shain, the principal at Lagunitas School District. “If they feel that their job is not secure, bringing a progressive attitude to a class or innovative ideas would be at the risk of losing their jobs.”

Contrary to the ruling, several West Marin educators believe a two-year probationary period is a sufficient length of time to judge a teacher’s educational abilities, particularly if a principal puts in the time to observe classrooms, coach and conduct and regular evaluations.

“Teachers already have a two-year probationary period which is designed to bolster skills or rule out the weak.… What happens more often than not is that the new teachers are plopped into a classroom on their own and it is more of a sink or swim. Some become good by trial and error and some don’t,” said Rebecca Braun, a second-grade teacher in the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District. “The biggest problem I have with this is that all the blame of ineffective teaching is put squarely on the shoulders of the teacher. Where is the administration in all this?”

Particularly in a small district, prolonging a decision can make it difficult to release a teacher after community ties are developed, Ms. Shain said.

The new superintendent for Lagunitas and Bolinas-Stinson, however, saw a “positive outcome” in the ruling, prompting the public to reevaluate how long-term employment is decided “after such a short period of time,” only about 16 months in the classroom.

“Each year, school administrators… face the impossible task of determining a new teacher’s likelihood of achieving excellence in the classroom in the long term,” John Carroll said. “The risk of keeping a new employee who may or may not develop into an excellent teacher is often just too great considering what is at stake: the possibility of a permanent substandard teacher who will impact the lives of children for decades to come,” resulting in some “promising” teachers being dismissed before they can prove themselves, he added.

“The discussion should not be framed as black and white: a fast track to permanent employment that is nearly impossible to reverse versus the capricious firing of teachers,” Mr. Carroll said. Will the recent ruling help us arrive at an alternative? “Obviously not on its own, but perhaps school districts, teachers and unions can see this as an opportunity to improve a practice that has not served our communities, our teachers or our children very well.”