Powerful testimony in trial on tenure – Pacific Research Institute

Powerful testimony in trial on tenure

When the California Teachers Association flexed its muscles in 2012 and killed legislation to keep teacher-sexual predators out of the classroom, it looked like it would be impossible to reform the worst aspects of the state’s teacher employment practices. Now, however, a lawsuit brought on behalf of nine children could strike down California’s most egregious laws that protect bad teachers and hurt students.

Vergara v. California seeks to overturn three categories of state statutes, which the plaintiffs argue violate the state constitutional right of every child to have an equal opportunity to access a quality education: the “permanent employment statute,” which requires that new teachers be given or denied permanent employment, otherwise know as tenure, after only 18 months; the dismissal statutes, which lay out the laborious process for dismissing a teacher; and the “Last-In, First-Out” (LIFO) statute that forces schools to lay off talented teachers with less seniority in favor of more ineffective teachers with more seniority.

Testimony by expert witnesses in the case has been revealing and often riveting. Harvard University Professor Raj Chetty, one of the nation’s top experts on identifying bad teachers, testified that, based on his research, “being assigned to a highly ineffective teacher generates significant harm in the long term” and being subjected to multiple ineffective teachers in a row “would substantially reduce your chances of attending college” and “substantially reduce students’ earnings.”

Chetty criticized the 18-month probation in the tenure statute saying it “is inadequate time to fully assess a teacher’s effectiveness and hence that short probationary period has a negative, detrimental effect on student learning.”

Former Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jonathan Raymond described the dance-of-the-lemons practices he had to employ to cope with the tenure law. He tried to minimize the “damage that grossly ineffective teachers have on students” by moving bad teachers up to three dozen times to different schools so as “to minimize the amount of time and the amount of children they [had] on a regular basis.” The Sacramento district spent nearly $1 million to move bad teachers into the substitute teacher pool to keep them out of the classroom as much as possible.

Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy testified that the dismissal statutes require “volumes of documentation” in a process that can take years and which usually costs between $250,000 to $450,000 per attempted dismissal.

Bill Kappenhagen, former principal at Burton High School in San Francisco, testified that because the dismissal process is so burdensome he had to take the drastic action of closing down the music program at the school in order to remove an extremely ineffective teacher from the classroom.

Discussing the LIFO statute, Bhavini Bhakta, a former teacher of the year in Southern California, testified that she lost four teaching jobs in eight years because of the law. In emotional testimony, she said, “I just felt like no matter what work I did in the classroom or how hard I worked that none of it mattered because a seniority date mattered way more than how much I did for kids, or what principals would say about me, or what parents would say about me.” With frustration oozing in her words, she continued: “Like, none of it mattered. Nothing … And, all that mattered was my hire date.”

Yet, despite the experiences of teachers like Bhakta and polls showing teacher support for dismissing ineffective tenured teachers, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have intervened in the case to help the state defend LIFO, tenure and the dismissal statutes. The ultimate victims are students like plaintiff Raylene Monterroza, who said, “when I had teachers who seemed like they didn’t even want to be there and couldn’t teach, I had to find a way out.” If the lawsuit succeeds and the laws are overturned, schools will be better able to provide Raylene and other students with the quality teachers they need to stay in school and succeed.

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Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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