California judge strikes down tenure, layoff laws


Beatriz Vergara testifies in Vergara v. California

California’s laws on teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissal are unconstitutional, a Los Angeles trial judge has ruled. Low-income and minority students don’t have equal access to competent teachers argued Students Matter, which sued on behalf of nine schoolchildren.

The evidence “shocks the conscience,” wrote Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu in the Vergara v. California decision. “There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.”

Enforced will be delayed pending an appeal by the lawsuit’s defendants, the state and California’s two major teachers unions.

Plaintiffs alleged that schools serving poor students have more teachers with less seniority, and therefore are more likely to lose teachers during seniority-based layoffs. As a result, those schools suffer from higher turnover and more inexperienced and ineffective teachers.

The suit also challenged the state requirement that school districts make decisions on tenure after a teacher has had about 18 months on the job — thus denying districts adequate time to determine a teacher’s competence.

Moreover, because of cumbersome dismissal procedures, Students Matter said, in 10 years only 91 of California’s teachers, who now number 285,000, have been fired, most for inappropriate conduct. And, the group noted that only 19 were dismissed for unsatisfactory performance.

The unions called the lawsuit a threat to due process, such as the right to a pre-dismissal hearing, and to protections from arbitrary or unfair administrators.

Union spokesman Fred Glass said, “The millionaires behind this case have successfully diverted attention from the real problems of public education.” That’s a reference to Dave Welch, co-founder of a telecom company, who’s the primary founder of Students Matter.

Education Trust hailed the decision. “The decision will force California to address the reality that our most vulnerable students are less likely to have access to effective teachers.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the decision a mandate for change.

For students in California and every other state, equal opportunities for learning must include the equal opportunity to be taught by a great teacher. The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students.

He hopes for a “collaborative process” — a deal, not an appeal — to write new laws that “protect students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

Vergara equals victory for kids, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Test-free accountability?

“Concerns” about Common Core standards primarily are about “the consequences of high-stakes tests attached to the standards,” write Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. They call for a “new accountability.”

Their model is California. Their bad example is New York.

They call for a “support-and-improve model” instead of a “test-and-punish approach.”

The “new accountability” appears to mean no accountability, respond Kati Haycock of the Education Trust and her former colleague, Russlyn Ali.

The Weingarten/Darling-Hammond piece is rife with omissions and unsupported innuendo. Our particular favorite from among their many claims is the assertion that California’s record graduation rates and recent gains on national eighth-grade math and reading exams are the result of new funding formulas and testing policies that weren’t even put into place until after these gains.

Teachers’ unions are trying to get rid of John King, New York’s commissioner of education, write Haycock and Ali. He’s “in a hurry” to improve education, while California’s system suffers from the pobrecito phenomenon. Expectations are low for poor immigrant students and “hugging kids is too often considered an acceptable substitute for teaching them.”

There are “huge real-life consequences” for students who don’t meet educational standards, even if their states link no official “stakes” to exams, Haycock and Ali write. “Those who exit high school with the skills to succeed in college have a real future in our knowledge-based economy; those who do not have strong skills are essentially toast.”

Two union bosses tell the truth

“We are at war with the reformers,” New York City teacher union leader Michael Mulgrew told union activists last week. Charter schools are trying to “destroy education in our country,” he added.

His candor is refreshing, writes Larry Sand in A Tale of Two Union Bosses. Sand, a former teacher who now runs the California Teachers Empowerment Network, also admires the honesty of George Parker, a former president of the Washington Teachers Union who joined Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.

Needless to say, he was roundly excoriated by all the usual suspects – branded a “whore” and worse – for hooking up with the dreaded “corporate reformer” Rhee.

In a speech at a policy summit last year, Parker said his change of heart was triggered by a third grader who asked him about his job. He said one of his responsibilities was getting her the best teachers. The girl hugged him om gratitude. “You care about us,” she said. “And you said that you make sure we get the best teachers.”

Driving back home, Parker . . .  he realized that he had lied to the little girl. He had just spent $10,000 of the union’s money on an arbitration case that put a bad teacher back in the classroom. . . . he wouldn’t let his own 4 year-old grandchild sit in a classroom with that teacher. The inevitable next thought was, so why is it okay for other people’s kids to be taught by an incompetent?

Parker goes on to say he told African-American parents that charter schools empower whites and take advantage of blacks. The real reason he was knocking charters, Parker says in the speech, is that  their existence hurts the union’s bottom line.

Gates speaks up for Common Core

As more states rethink Common Core standards and testing, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates says high, consistent standards are essential to keep the U.S. competitive with other nations.

The Gates Foundation has spent $75 million to support the Common Core movement.

The Common Core is under attack from all sides. The right complains of federal meddling. Teachers’ unions are backing away, citing poor implementation. Parents are confused. And reform opponents really don’t like the fact that it’s backed by Bill Gates. He must know that, but think he has clout with other factions.

Most teachers aren’t in a union

Union membership has dipped below 50 percent for U.S. teachers, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That includes public and private K-12 teachers.

Union membership hit 57.5 percent in 1983, but began falling in 1995, reports Education Intelligence Agency. While America’s schools added almost a million and a quarter new teachers in the last 18 years, “teachers’ unions added fewer than 345,000 new members, for a rate of 27.8 percent.”

Will the teachers’ unions be able to maintain their influence on education policy?

If you can’t fire a child molester …

California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that was supposed to make it easier to fire teachers charged with molesting students. It would “create new problems,” Brown said in his veto message.

The union-backed bill made it easier for abusive teachers to stall the dismissal process and force districts to settle, charges Larry Sand City Journal. A retired teacher, Sand is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.

Mark Berndt, a Los Angeles teacher charged with 23 counts of  “lewd acts” against first-graders, was paid to resign.

Last year, district officials agreed to pay him more than $40,000 to resign in lieu of exercising his “due process rights,” which could have dragged out his termination for months or possibly years—while he continued to collect a salary and accrue pension benefits—through a series of contractually mandated hearings and appeals. This past March, the district announced that it would pay $30 million to the parents of 61 of Berndt’s former students.

In response to the Berndt case, a bill was proposed to let districts suspend teachers credibly charged with abusing students. The state teachers’ unions blocked it.

“The influence of the California Teachers Association was rarely more apparent—or more sickening, editorialized the San Francisco Chronicle. “The union showed its willingness to defend an expensive and cumbersome process for firing bad teachers at almost any cost – even if that means school districts must continue to spend exorbitant sums of time and money to dismiss teachers in cases involving sex, drugs or violence with students.”

Williams: ‘Corrupt’ leaders ignore bad schools

“Corrupted” by teachers union money, black leaders who spoke at Saturday’s March on Washington failed to speak out against bad schools, charged Fox News contributor Juan Williams on “The O’Reilly Factor.” The march commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

King would “stand up and act against bad schools that are condemning these kids to useless lives because they never have an opportunity to climb that ladder of upward mobility,” Williams said. “And the civil rights challenge of this generation is education, and Dr. King would never allow anybody to buy his silence, to buy him off, to sell out the kids and that’s what’s happening right now.”

Teachers’ unions have given tens of thousands of dollars to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and NAACP because “they don’t want those civil rights leaders to ever stand up and say yes to charter schools, yes to vouchers, yes to school reform,” Williams charged.

Civil rights leaders are “selling out,” Williams said. “And that is corruption and it’s corruption of a great movement.”

Teachers unions aren’t to blame

Once hostile to teachers’ unions, Education Realist now thinks unions are blamed unfairly for many education problems. She starts with teachers’ cognitive ability.

. . .  high school teachers have always been pretty smart, and drawn from the top half of the college grad pool. . . .  testing and knowledge standards for elementary teachers was once low, is now much higher and more than reasonable since the states dramatically increased the credentialing test difficulty as part of their adherence to NCLB.

However, “this dramatic increase did not result in either improved outcomes or evidence that new teachers who qualified with tougher tests were superior to teachers who didn’t,” she writes. “The research at best shows that smarter teachers give a teeny tiny boost to outcomes.”

States — not unions — set knowledge requirements for teacher credentialing, she writes. They struggle with disparate impact. “Set credentialing standards high, and you lose your black and Hispanic teachers.”

Reformers “unions promote pay scales that give all teachers the same raise, regardless of quality” and oppose performance pay.

Okay. So the very notion of a union is antithetical to getting competitive, performance-driven people who want rewards for their hard work.

But “there’s no point to performance pay if the objectives are delusions, she argues. If competitive, high-performance people became teachers, they’d be unable to raise outcomes and they’d quit.

The “big Kahuna of teacher union beefs” is that it’s hard to fire bad teachers.

If government unions ceased to exist tomorrow, teachers would still have Loudermill, the relatively recent Supreme Court decision that says that employment is a property right, and states can’t deprive their employees of property rights without due process. And most states have tenure written into their laws, independent of union contracts. So the changes necessary to undo teacher rights are far more than just dumping unions.

Oregon dropped tenure in favor of renewable two-year teaching contracts, but nothing changed. Oregon is below average in teacher dismissal rates, reports the Center for American Progress. While some states without tenure laws have high dismissal rates (Alabama, Alaska), others have low ones (Mississippi, Texas). The “bulk of the apparently onerous dismissal laws are encoded in state law, not in union contracts.

Teacher unions to blame for big pensions and “a compensation structure that repels competitive, performance-driven workers,” Education Realist concedes. However, “many of the teacher protections and all of the standards lie at the state level, entirely out of the union’s purview.”

Of course, teachers’ unions have a great deal of influence on state law.

Ravitch launches anti-reform group

Education historian Diane Ravitch has launched the Network for Public Education to back political candidates who oppose education reforms such as high-stakes testing, school closures and “privatizing” public schools, reports Ed Week.

NPE promises to “give voice to the millions of parents, educators, and other citizens who are fed up with corporate-style reform.”

“Wealthy individuals are pouring unprecedented amounts of money into state and local school board races,” a press release charges. Ravitch told Ed Week her group will endorse candidates and urge others to donate, but won’t raise money itself to give to candidates.

“What we want to do is be the kind of glue and use the social media to create a powerful national movement.”

And while there are powerful teachers’ unions that have a similar agenda and a lot of money and influence, she said the Network for Public Education will also be a home for those who don’t belong to unions—including parents and teachers in nonunion states.

Two California school board races in Los Angeles and West Sacramento – drew large donations as reformers and anti-reformers fought it out.

Union asks teachers to evaluate principals

Scranton teachers are evaluating their principals at two elementary schools, reports the Times-Tribune. The Scranton Federation of Teachers, which voted “no confidence” in district administrators in November, plans to expand the effort to all principals and administrators, up to the superintendent.

The evaluation forms include a ranking scale with questions ranging from the visibility of a principal to whether the principal collaborates with teachers. Comments can also be made, and the surveys are anonymous.

If this is not just a gotcha, it could prove useful.

Pennsylvania plans to implement a principal evaluation system in the 2014-15 school year.