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Is Teacher Tenure Really The New Brown V. Board Of Education?


I’m Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We want to spend some time talking about a subject that we follow closely on this program and that is education. In a few minutes we'll talk about changes the Obama administration wants to make to student loan repayment terms. But first we'd like to talk about some news coming out of California where a Los Angeles Superior Court decision could wind up being a landmark that sets off nationwide changes to job protection laws for teachers. In a sweeping decision a Superior Court judge decided that California's teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional. Saying that the laws violate the civil rights of low income and minority students by making it hard to fire bad teachers. Those who support the decision say it's a way for students because it helps remove grossly ineffective teachers from the classroom, but teacher unions are up in arms saying that the decision will make it harder to recruit and retain qualified teachers. For more on this we turn to Stephen Sawchuk assistant editor for Education Week. He covers teacher related policy and rights for the Teacher Beat blog. And he's with us now in our Washington D.C. studios. Welcome. Thanks so much for coming.

STEPHEN SAWCHUK: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: What exactly did the ruling say? I have to note that the language very strong.

SAWCHUK: Very strong. You know, essentially the judge agreed with the plaintiffs. 9 students and their families with their arguments that these teacher protection laws and by that we mean tenure. We mean the lengthy process for dismissing a tenure teacher, and also some of the seniority previsions which require more junior teachers to be laid off before more experience teachers were - disproportionally saddling students of color and disadvantaged students with the weakest teachers.

MARTIN: Now we know that teacher tenure policies have become kind of a focus of attention of a lot of people who believe our educational system needs to be shaken up. So what's significant about this? Is this the first time that there's been a legal case directed at teacher tenure policies? I mean how are these policies generally managed? I mean I thought this is mainly a matter of collective bargaining.

SAWCHUK: Tenure policies are actually normally set by states, they're mostly written into state law. And typically the way they're change is through legislative action. That's been hard in California there've been a number of attempts to make it easier to get rid of teachers accused of malfeasance for instance. And those are typically been blocked by the California teacher unions. In this case the plaintiffs when the judicial route and I think what's really important to understand about this - you have to understand a little bit about education equity cases in the past. I mean everyone knows Brown v. Board of Education, but in the 70s and 80s people looked at things like educational equity and adequacy mostly from a finance perspective. And so there were a number of rulings that said that -

MARTIN: Funding people mainly addresses this through funding. They said this district is getting less than this district.

SAWCHUK: These schools are getting less, we have to capitalize this. This is the first ruling that has said it is not just about the money. We have to make sure that there is equitable access to quality teaching and instruction. It's the first that we've ever seen a ruling like that.

MARTIN: So just let me understand this. Is the ruling saying that having a qualified teacher is a civil right?

SAWCHUK: The ruling is saying that disadvantaged kids cannot have a disproportionate share of poor performing teachers.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit if you would about the specific circumstances in California. How is teacher tenure awarded there? And why do you think - I'm just curious because we note - I have to note again that some of the people involved in this case are national figures. Like the former Solicitor General Theodore Olson who's taken on a number of high-profile cases, not just in the education area for example around same-sex marriage he argued a Supreme Court, a significant Supreme Court case involving that. So what are the specific circumstances in California that got activists involved in looking for a case to address this issue?

SAWCHUK: Teacher tenure in California is granted after two years. Most states its three years or more so that was one issue. The other thing is that the particular protections that come from tenure are different in every state. And in California the process can go on as long as 10 years, it's incredibly expensive and a lot of districts don't want to do all the documentation and go through the multiple appeals it typically takes. And so that was one of the reasons it was brought there. There are other states for instance where if a teacher gets several poor evaluations they can be returned to probationary status. California doesn't have rules like that.

MARTIN: So do you have the sense that - I mean I think this is something that perhaps a lot of people don't know is that sometimes people who are trying to use the courts to advance a particular issue go look for a place in order to bring a case. They look for specific circumstances, they look for a specific venue. Do you have the sense that the national advocates who wanted to address the teacher tenure issue are looking for specific case here? Is it California over all or did something happen with these particular students? There were 9 plaintiffs who were students in the system. Did something happen in their circumstances that made this an attractive place to test this issue?

SAWCHUK: I think California's laws are unusual in that they're so specific. I mean not that many laws specifically say that you can only lay off junior teachers before senior teachers regardless of how good they are. In many cases that's more a function of the contract and can be bargained in or out.

MARTIN: So what are the next steps here? We mentioned that this issue is already being appealed as you would imagine.

SAWCHUK: Two things, two things. There are the appeals and of course that can go either way depending on how the appellate court reviews the evidence. The other thing is that I think it will cause the California legislature to take a really close look at these laws. I mean there's pressure on them to address this. In fact if you read the ruling carefully there is some bright lines in there. The judge says for instance that while all these other states take three years to earn tenure. So if i were a betting man I would look for a proposal and a legislator to increase the time to tenure and possibly weed out some of these steps it takes to remove an ineffective teacher.

MARTIN: Given that California is a bit of an outlier in this area - now - does it seem as though this will set off a national chain reaction? I mean if California moves basically to bring its practices in line with those that are practiced by most other states, is there really going to be that sweeping in effect because it just seems from the reaction that you're getting from teacher advocacy groups and also from people who support this ruling it seems to me that people really think that this is going to set off shock waves.

SAWCHUK: I think - I have two opinions on that. First I think legislators the countries over will be looking at their own laws and trying to get a sense of how they all merge like the ones in California. I am going to throw a little bit of cold water on the idea that we're going to see legal charges of this nature everywhere because if you read the ruling very carefully it sites mostly of the California case law and precedent. I mean there have been equitable education lawsuits in other states but courts interpret those terms differently. Adequacy, even teacher tenure has different meanings in different states. So we don't think this is a slam-dunk to use this California Precedent in a state where the case law is different. I think that they're going to have to really look at that with respect to the specific laws in the other states.

MARTIN: Finally tell me a little bit about the group that brought this case. I mean this was nine families represented by a group called Students Matter. I note again that a very high-powered legal team brought this before the Los Angeles Superior Court. Tell us a little bit about this group and what's behind their thinking here?

SAWCHUK: You know one of the things that the teachers unions have been pointing out, you know, they've said you know this is a smokescreen this isn't about equity it's about tried to undermine the teachers unions and they've pointed out the fact that these students are bankrolled by this group and that this group has ties to donors that have not been particularly friendly to teacher in the past. On the other hand the group itself would say that this is an issue of you now economic development in California. We need to have the best teachers, we need to have the best educated student and that these laws are - in sort of the face value of things preventing that.

MARTIN: I understand that the major donor behind this group is David Welch who is a silicon valley technology mogul who spent millions of dollars on building this organization. But what's the stated intention of Students Matter? Is it to bring cases like this, is it to bring legal cases like this or do they have other things that concern them?

SAWCHUK: So far this is the main thing they've worked on and I haven't seen any particular initiatives coming from them. Their stated goal is to ensure that all students are taught by effective teachers.

MARTIN: Stephen Sawchuk is an assistant editor for Education Week. He covers teacher related policy. He writes for their Teacher Beat blog, and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Stephen Sawchuk thanks so much for joining us.

SAWCHUK: Thanks again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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