Taking on teacher tenure


When states are sued for providing inferior education to poor and minority children, the issue is usually money — disproportionately more money for white students, less for others. A California judge has brought another deep-rooted inequity to light: poor teaching.

Judge Rolf Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled this week that state laws governing the hiring, firing, and job security of teachers violate the California Constitution and disproportionately saddle poor and minority children with ineffective teachers.

The ruling opens a new chapter in the equal-education struggle. It also underscores a shameful problem that has cast a long shadow over the lives of children, in California and the rest of the country.

The plaintiffs in the case are nine public school students who charged that state laws forced districts to give tenure to teachers, regardless of whether they can do the job, making it virtually impossible to fire even the worst of them. Judge Treu agreed: “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

He pointed to the stupidity of a state law that makes teachers eligible for tenure after 18 months, even though evidence shows that such a decision takes between three and five years. Once teachers become permanent, he said, even those who are ineffective as measured by evaluations are protected by a dismissal process so “complex, time-consuming, and expensive” that it could take nearly 10 years and cost $450,000 before it runs its course. Districts give up on dismissal and let poor-performing teachers keep their jobs.

Judge Treu was equally scathing about state law on layoffs, which work on a “last in, first out” principle, showing junior teachers the door even when they are more talented. To defend such a policy, he said, the state would have to argue a compelling interest in separating students from good teachers and subjecting them to incompetents who harm them.

The judge left it up to state lawmakers to create statutes that comport with California’s constitution. The legislature is almost certain to face pressure from teachers’ unions that will try to discredit the ruling by condemning the judge as anti-union or pointing out that the case was brought by a nonprofit group created by a Silicon Valley magnate.

Teachers deserve reasonable due-process rights and job protections. But unions can work to change the anachronistic policies cited by the court, or they will have change thrust upon them.

— New York Times