Originally published in The American Prospect on August 2nd, 2016.
This past April, the California Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the controversial Vergara v. California decision, in which a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that five longstanding teacher protections—including a two-year probationary period for new teachers and a layoff system based on how many years one’s been teaching—violated students’ constitutional right to an equal education. The lower court judge had argued that these labor protections make it harder to fire bad teachers, and bad teachers significantly undermine a child’s education. In a 3-0 decision, the appellate judges concluded that the labor protections themselves are not responsible for harming students, even if school administrators sometimes implement them injudiciously.
Students Matter, a nonprofit backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch that’s representing the Vergara plaintiffs, has filed an appeal to California’s Supreme Court. Their supporters argue that children pay the price for such job protections as teacher tenure and seniority. They also point to research that suggests making it easier to fire teachers has positive effects on student achievement. Critics counter that the real problems students face—particularly low-income students of color—are not teacher job protections, but their under-resourced, highly segregated schools that fail to attract and retain high-quality educators. At a time when states like California face real teacher shortages, they say, the focus on firing teachers is misplaced at best.
Since the lower court’s Vergara ruling two years ago, similar suits challenging teacher job protections have been filed in New York and Minnesota.
While David Welch and his allies remain committed to waging legal battles against tenure, seniority, and other job protections, they are also pushing for statutory changes via the California legislature. Following the original Vergara decision, Republican lawmakers introduced a package of three bills to extend the time it would take a teacher to earn tenure, to repeal the “last-in, first-out” statute that makes layoff decisions based on seniority, and to establish an annual teacher evaluation system. These bills, however, got nowhere in the Democratic-controlled statehouse.
“I think the Vergara decision helped increase public demand for improvements in our education system, but I always think it’s better when we can make policy changes through the legislature rather than the court system,” says Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, the Republican who sponsored the teacher evaluation bill.
Back during the original Vergara trial, unions and some education experts also argued against making policy changes through the courts. A spokesperson for the California Teachers Association told The Wall Street Journal that legislators were already looking at ways to amend the contested laws, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that extending the time it takes to get tenure in California is a legitimate idea, but that such changes should be done through the political process, not the judiciary.
Today, however, local unions are fighting back against attempts to change employment laws through the legislature. California is one of just five states that grants teachers tenure after two years—32 states require a three-year probationary period, and nine states require four or five years. And, as critics are quick to point out, the reality is that California administrators must file paperwork for tenure status after a teacher has been working for just 15 to 18 months if they’re to meet state deadlines. Even those who are very supportive of teacher tenure feel lengthening the amount of time it takes to earn it makes sense. Before granting genuine job security, they say, make sure it’s for an individual you’d really want in front of students for the long haul.
But the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have both strongly opposed bills aimed at modifying tenure, even legislation from which their adversaries have withdrawn support. While the final outcome of the Vergara case remains to be seen, the unions’ firm stance against reform could help prompt tenure opponents to mount an initiative campaign—a routine occurrence in California politics. That may not bode well for the unions: A 2015 poll of registered California voters found that most respondents think teachers in their state receive tenure too quickly, and that seniority should count less during the layoff process. If changes to tenure and seniority were to come before the voters, there are decent odds that such a measure would pass.
The concept of teacher tenure in American public education, as Dana Goldstein documents in her book The Teacher Wars, was an idea originally imported from Germany. Progressive-era reformers saw that giving teachers more job security was often a good way to incentivize people to join the low-paid profession. Tenure also made it harder to fire teachers, which consequently made it more difficult for the urban political machines that then dominated cities to dole out teaching jobs as political favors.
Though teachers unions have existed in the U.S. for a long time, the idea of collective bargaining didn’t take off until the second half of the 20th century, as membership in teachers unions grew, and public sector unionism gained strength more broadly. The first teachers union to win collective bargaining rights was New York City’s United Federation of Teachers in 1963, and by the end of the 1970s, after a series of labor strikes across the country, 72 percent of public school teachers were covered under collective bargaining agreements.
As a result, teacher tenure in unionized school districts means being covered under a “just cause” provision in a collective bargaining agreement. In a non-unionized workplace, employees can be fired simply because an employer doesn’t like them. The added job security that comes with tenure means that a boss would need to legally demonstrate that firing their employee was justified—that there is “just cause” for the worker’s termination. Tenured employees also have the right to contest their firing.
Tenure critics rightly note that in many school districts, the process an administrator has to go through in order to dismiss a teacher for cause ends up being so lengthy and expensive that it can feel nearly impossible. In many cases, it’s easier, and a lot cheaper, to keep an ineffective teacher employed, rather than jump through the legal hoops to remove them. In New York City, officials who make failed attempts to terminate teachers often end up just issuing fines.
Union contracts generally distinguish between two kinds of dismissals. The first is termination for cause; for example, an administrator should be able to fire you if you’re an ineffective teacher or if you sexually harass a student. The second type of dismissal is through a layoff due to an economic circumstance—generally, cuts to school district budgets during recessions.
Many teacher tenure critics also want to end the process of “seniority”—which requires that districts make layoff decisions based on the number of years a teacher has been working. Opponents of these “last-in, first-out” statutes say that high-quality young teachers are penalized under this system, since their few years in the profession makes them more likely to be canned, regardless of their job performance. This also disproportionately hurts students in high-poverty schools, critics say, because young teachers are generally assigned to those schools.
Some states, including many that are substantially unionized, have already explicitly banned seniority when making layoff decisions, and others require teacher job performance to be the primary factor considered. Ten states—including New York and California—however, still require that the number of years a teacher has taught be a partial, or the primary factor for districts when making layoff decisions.
Defenders of seniority say that if you want to fire someone for poor performance, then do it for cause, not disguised through the layoff process. In effect, tenure and seniority work together to give employers the flexibility to lay people off when economic circumstances require it, but in a way that protects teachers from being arbitrarily targeted, or targeted because they were paid more than more junior faculty. Seniority-patterned layoffs exist specifically to protect the “just cause” rights.
“Until very recently, these rules were fairly uncontroversial,” says Leo Casey, the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “They prevented older, more expensive teachers from being discriminated against during lean economic times, and administrators often appreciated the simplicity of ‘last-in, first-out’, especially because there was no consensus on how to best evaluate teachers’ performance.”
In February, before the Vergara appeals court decision came down, California Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, a Democrat, introduced a bill aimed at finding some legislative common ground for the various employment statutes being challenged in court. While the three bills sponsored by Republicans in 2015 got nowhere, some believed an effort led by a Democrat might get more traction. Both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have donated to Bonilla’s campaigns.
Bonilla proposed, among other things, giving principals the option of waiting until a teacher’s third or fourth year to grant tenure, and placing poorly performing teachers in a program that would provide increased professional support. If the ineffective teacher received another low performance rating after a year in this program, Bonilla’s legislation would enable schools to fire the teacher through an expedited process. The LA Times editorial board said her bill would make the rules “more reasonable and practical, while preventing capricious or vindictive firings of teachers by school administrators.” Education reformers initially took no position on her bill, but following April’s Vergara appeals decision, Students Matter, the group that brought the case, decided to back it.
However, Bonilla still lacked support from school administrators and teachers unions, and the California Teachers Association was urging its members to fight her bill. EdSource, a nonprofit news site focused on education in California, reported that the union posted an “action alert” for teachers to call their lawmakers, labeling the proposed legislation “an all-out assault” by “corporate millionaires and special interests.”
In June, Bonilla introduced an amended version of her bill, one that would require new teachers to work for three years before becoming eligible for tenure. Her bill no longer included provisions to create a new teacher evaluation system, to require teachers with poor performance reviews to be laid off before those with less seniority, and to remove many of the dismissal rules that administrators found frustrating. In an interview with The American Prospect, Bonilla explained that she needed to narrow her legislation’s scope because that’s what the Senate Education Committee requested. “They are looking for policy change, but my original bill was too wide-ranging,” she says.
Despite being significantly watered-down, the bill was still opposed by the unions, while the education reform groups that originally offered support came out in strong opposition, too. However, the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association now came forward with endorsements of the amended legislation.
“In my opinion, I really needed administrators’ support. That’s why we took LIFO [last-in, first-out] completely out and worked with the superintendents and the school board association to craft a version they could back. They’re part of the education community, they really understand what needed to be changed,” says Bonilla. The Association of California School Administrators is listed as one of Bonilla’s top campaign contributors.
Students Matter called the amended bill “a bad deal for California students” and urged members of the California legislature to reject it.
“The reform groups wanted everything, and some wanted everything but only if it was written exactly by them,” says Bonilla. “They didn’t want to come on board if it didn’t come out of their house.” She says Students Matter, and another reform-oriented group, Teach Plus, withdrew their support when her legislation no longer addressed seniority.
“If I had to choose who I was going to go with, I’d choose the administrators, the people actually running the schools. That was my priority in terms of really getting sound policy,” says Bonilla.
The California Teachers Association called upon its members to organize against the amended bill, saying it would take rights away from educators, and negatively impact students.
On June 29, the California Senate Education Committee held a hearing,ultimately rejecting Bonilla’s amended bill. Just two of the committee’s nine senators voted in favor—and both are terming out in November. (Five opposed it, and two others didn’t vote.)
“I do feel that at least having the hearing on the bill, which went on for about an hour and a half, was really important,” says Bonilla, who is also leaving office in November. “I felt it was important, as a Democrat, that I stand up and say, we as legislators have an obligation to our constituencies to find a solution and not pretend that the status quo is alright, just because the union says it is.”
One senator to vote in favor of Bonilla’s bill was Carol Liu, the chairwoman of the education committee. Liu told Bonilla that she could amend her bill further over the July recess period if she wanted to try and get more support. Bonilla took Liu up on this and submitted a new version that does not extend the time it takes a new teacher to earn tenure. All Bonilla’s latest version does now is grant school districts the authority to negotiate an alternative dismissal process with their local bargaining units, if they so choose. Right now, under California state law, local bargaining units are prohibited from negotiating the terms of their dismissal process. In 2014, the teachers union in San Jose tried to do this, and asked the California state board of education for a waiver so they could extend their probationary period to three years. But the state board denied the San Jose school district and its union their request. (The California Teachers Association argued that such changes should only come from the state legislature, not through waivers.) Bonilla’s twice-watered-down bill, then, would make such a change.
As of August 1st, it was still unclear whether Bonilla’s new bill would receive a waiver and come up for a re-vote. The American Prospect was unsuccessful in getting an interview with the California Teachers Association, despite repeated attempts over several weeks.
I asked Josh Petchalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, why his union opposed Bonilla’s amended bill in June. Wasn’t a one-year extension of the probationary period a fairly good compromise?
Petchalt, though, does not think the tenure law needs to be changed, and believes changing it would not solve the underlying issue of how tenure is assessed. “I think all the commotion about making it three years or five years really misses the point about what it means to have a rigorous procedure for evaluating teachers,” says Petchalt, who taught high school for more than two decades. “I don’t think it takes very long to decide if an adult should be working with kids. I think it happens relatively quickly if that person is being observed on a regular basis by properly trained administrators who know what they’re doing.”
Some leading academics share Petchalt’s assessment. During the Vergara trials, Jesse Rothstein, an economics professor at UC Berkeley, testified that two years was long enough for principals and school administrators to determine whether or not to award tenure. He cited his own research, which suggests that granting tenure earlier, rather than later, is better for students. Rothstein also argued in favor of using seniority to handle layoffs, which he says is a less costly, subjective, and controversial method than using annual performance evaluations.
If Bonilla’s revised-again bill, which has been stripped of its probation provision, comes up for a revote, she says she really hopes there will be “three courageous legislators” who will vote for its passage. “Allowing a union to bargain locally is not an anti-union position,” Bonilla says.
If her amended bill does not pass, or even if it does, the education reformers may seek to place an initiative on the 2018 ballot. Bonilla says she’s heard that there already been some money raised to start that effort.
If such a measure is placed before voters, I asked Petchalt, wouldn’t it look bad to oppose a bill that wouldn’t end seniority, wouldn’t end tenure—just merely extend the probationary period to three years, which is how long it takes in most states anyway?
“I don’t doubt that the optics are not great, but our members spend a career in the classroom, they are committed to public education, to children, and so it’s not good enough to say well there’s an element of goodness in this specific bill if the overall effect would make things worse,” he says. Petchalt points to the Vergara trial, and the broader political effort to weaken teachers unions and collective bargaining. At a time when public sector workers are under attack, when public education is under attack, he says, his union feels compelled to fight back against “a broad narrative.”
“The teachers union supported No Child Left Behind and it got them nowhere,” Petchalt adds. “And they supported [NCLB] for exactly what you’re saying, they didn’t want to be seen as folding their arms and being opposed to everything. [Some union leaders] said if we support [NCLB], then they’ll stop their attacks. But it furthered the attacks, creating a dynamic that resulted in very bad things happening.”
Petchalt is probably right to suspect that even if his union and the CTA backed Bonilla’s bill, even if union leaders agreed to change the probationary period to three years, education reformers would be unlikely to stop fighting for more concessions. In Pennsylvania, where teachers are eligible for tenure after three years, reformers are pushing to extend it to five years, insisting that three years is too short. In this political climate, unions have decided that ceding no ground and putting forth alternatives is preferable to compromising and hoping the disputes get resolved.
Whether this is the most strategically savvy move, though, is unclear. A survey released in 2012 of 10,000 educators found that, on average, teachers felt it was reasonable to work 5.4 years before being evaluated for tenure. Another survey released in 2015, sponsored by the pro-reform group Teach Plus, found that 65 percent of California teachers think that a probationary period between three and five years makes sense for administrators making tenure decisions.
“In California, when legislators can’t come up with a solution, it ends up going on the ballot,” says Bonilla, who worries about lawmakers abdicating their responsibilities, and the electorate voting on issues they’re not well informed about. “We as legislators have to be the ones to demand that the reformers and the centrally-controlled unions be reasonable. There is no one else who is going to do it.”