This post was written by Natalie Jersak, a rising senior at Siena College and summer intern at the Government Law Center.
On Tuesday, June 11, 2014, the Los Angeles Superior Court moved to end the California’s public schools tenure system. The court cited Brown vs. Board of Education case’s holding that all students have a fundamental right to equal education as the basis for ending the tenure system. Under that standard, the court held that students were denied their fundamental right to education because the tenure system had the effect of retaining poor teachers who failed to supply students with a competent education. The most severe cases of teacher incompetency was overwhelmingly present in schools with a large base of minority and low-income students
Tenure rights were first enacted in 1910 with New Jersey legislation granting fair-dismissal rights to college professors. Tenure legislation for primary and secondary schools was not established until the 1920s.
Today, there are roughly 2.3 million public school teachers in the U.S. who have tenure rights. The tenure question has two sides. Opponents of tenure argue that this system protects subpar educators because the only way to dismiss them is via a mandated and costly process. On the other hand, proponents argue that teachers need protection like this because without it, at will employment can subject teachers to dismissal at the whim of schools administration. The most common example cited in support of tenure rights is to protect teachers who wish to teach their curriculum without the interference of extra-curricular forces—e.g. they want to teach according to national or state curriculum standards as opposed to locally-encouraged criterion.
The push to remove tenure rights has been quieted for over a decade. The last state to abolish tenure was Oregon in 1997. There, the state eradicated tenure and adopted a system providing two-year renewable contracts along with a rehabilitation program for underachieving teachers.
In California, the court compiled a list of items evidencing how the California tenure system denied students their fundamental right to education. Mainly the procedure protecting tenured teachers made it difficult to terminate ineffective educators. According to the court, the hearing-like process granted to every tenured teacher costs districts between $250,000 and $450,000 per tenure complaint; the process itself takes, on average, two years to complete.
Representatives from the California Teachers Association will appeal the decision on the grounds that the court has interrupted the principles of checks and balances by circumventing the legislature to end tenure.