Policy Documents

Research & Commentary: Vergara v. California and Teacher Tenure

Rebecca Schieber –
May 9, 2014

Many state and local elected officials have tried to reform teacher tenure. The issue is back in the spotlight as a result of the Los Angeles County Superior Court case Vergara v. California, which is currently challenging tenure laws in California. Specifically, the case challenges laws that grant teachers permanent employment after 18 months, make it nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers, and create “last-in, first-out” policies that dismiss teachers regardless of their effectiveness.

The plaintiffs are students, supported by the nonprofit organization Students Matter. They argue laws that keep poor-performing teachers in the classroom disproportionately harm poor and minority students in California and thus violate their constitutional rights under the Equal Protection Clause. Research shows African-American and Latino students in the L.A. School District are two to three times more likely than white students to have an ineffective teacher. An economist professor at Harvard found students taught by inadequate teachers lose up to $1.4 million in lifetime earnings compared to those taught by average teachers.

Although teachers unions admit the system needs some reform, they are increasingly concerned about the threat of schools cutting higher-salaried teachers to save expenses. Proponents of tenure reform, however, note existing “fair dismissal laws” already protect teachers. The reform simply would remove huge barriers that prevent schools from removing ineffective teachers.

Tenure was once a well-earned career milestone, but it is now given to almost every teacher. A study of 12 New York districts found 99 percent of teachers were granted tenure each year. Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute in Virginia, notes, “In every other job, those who perform well are rewarded, and there are consequences for underperforming.” Treating educators differently makes little sense. Teachers who receive tenure are more likely to become complacent, because their jobs are safe regardless of their students’ performance.

A 2012 report by the Manhattan Institute found the process of removing an ineffective teacher requires carefully documented points of incompetence over a period of time, and the standards used are subjective and contestable. Students’ performance over time is almost never considered. The report concludes the current measuring tools are almost completely useless. Colorado passed a law in 2010 that rewards teachers based on merit rather than solely on experience and certifications. The law also altered the “last-in, first-out” system and allowed districts to revoke the tenure of poorly rated teachers.

In the past 10 years, only 91 of 300,000 teachers have been dismissed in California, and only 19 of those dismissals were for poor performance. The court will decide Vergara v. California by July 10, but no matter the decision, the case is likely to be appealed. States such as Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and many others are eliminating or reforming tenure policies to increase the quality of education for students.

The following documents offer more information about teacher tenure and Vergara v. California.

Terrible Tenure

Larry Sand, a retired teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, notes 98 percent of teachers in California attain tenure. Protecting rights of teachers against unfair dismissal is justifiable, but since those basic protections were enacted years ago, unions have pushed for extreme protections at the expense of the students. School districts have no way of rewarding exceptional teachers and no way of dismissing poor teachers. Permanence through tenure is protecting teachers and undermining children’s education.

Students First

Students First is a nonprofit organization formed in 2010 and led by the former chancellor of the Washington, DC Public Schools, Michelle Rhee. The organization does significant research into California’s education policies and is working to reform the education system there.   

Vergara v. California Case Summary
The nonprofit organization Students Matter is supporting nine public school students who filed a lawsuit against the state of California to strike down laws that prevent schools from providing students with the highest quality of education. The plaintiffs call for a focus on rewarding exceptional and motivated teachers and requiring schools to hold failing teachers accountable. The case focuses on the Permanent Employment Statute, Dismissal Statutes, and the “Last-in, First-out” Statute.
Transforming Tenure: Using Value-Added Modeling to Identify Ineffective Teachers

Public school teachers in the United States are famously difficult to dismiss. After three years, most receive tenure—after a brief, subjective evaluation process where nearly no one receives a negative rating, notes Marcus Winters in this Manhattan Institute report. He suggests an alternative: Using value-added modeling to generate objective data on how each teacher performs, and using that data in teacher evaluations. Winters analyzes data from Florida public schools to show a VAM score in a teacher’s third year is a good predictor of that teacher’s success in his or her fifth year. He then considers the most effective ways to use VAM in tenure reform.

2013 State Teacher Policy Yearbook: National Summary

The State Teacher Policy Yearbook project arose from a simple premise. Despite what many—including, at times, the states themselves—have argued, state governments have the strongest impact on the work of the nation’s more than three and a half million public school teachers. With that in mind, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) began in 2007 what has become an annual analysis and encyclopedic presentation of every policy states have on their books that affects teacher quality, specifically state efforts to shape teacher preparation, licensing, evaluation, and compensation. The organization’s stated goal has been to provide research-based, practical, cost-neutral recommendations to states on the best ways to improve the teaching profession.

Research & Commentary: Objective Teacher Evaluations

Joy Pullmann of The Heartland Institute discusses the importance of objective teacher evaluations. In many states, nearly all teachers receive a “satisfactory” score. Even teachers who receive low scores are nearly impossible to remove. The best way to improve teacher quality is to give administrators and parents the power to reward exceptional teachers and remove failing ones.

Competing Views of Teacher Tenure Are on Display in California Case

The New York Times reports on Vergara v. California, the California court case in which students are challenging teacher tenure laws. Lawyers for the students argue the protection of low-quality teachers is harming students’ education. The teachers unions argue tenure laws are needed to protect teachers from arbitrary firings. Efforts to change tenure policies in California have failed repeatedly because of the political strength of the teacher unions.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at http://news.heartland.org/education, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at http://www.heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or jpullmann@heartland.org.