Last week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu made waves when he ruled that teacher tenure is unconstitutional on the basis that the state of California's current tenure laws disproportionately have a negative impact on poor and minority students. Treu was weighing in on the highly publicized Vergara v. California lawsuit, in which nine California students, with the help of an organization called Students Matter, argued that the state’s current tenure laws leave students in lower-income schools with ineffective teachers. The suit claimed that a larger number of these teachers are assigned to poorer schools, violating students' rights to equal opportunity and access to quality education.
While the state's teachers unions are expected to appeal the decision, Treu's ruling has the potential to disrupt various laws surrounding teacher security in California and beyond. Specifically the verdict can affect how long it takes for a teacher to earn tenure, the legal steps necessary to remove a tenured teacher, and which teachers are laid off when budget cuts occur.
The case is significant not just because of these potentially massive changes it could have for teacher unions, but also because of the funding it received from Silicon Valley advocacy group Students Matter. Run by millionaire David Welch, the organization's involvement highlights the growing trend of wealthy individuals influencing massive shifts in education policy sans election.
So now that the trial is over and the students won, how are people reacting? Let's take a look at some of the various opinions making rounds across the web.
1. Michelle Rhee: Ruling is a win for teachers and children
In an editorial for the Washington Post, the former D.C. schools chancellor and founder and current chief executive of Students First argues that the ruling is not just a win for students, but teachers as well.
In Rhee's opinion, by striking down laws promising job security, the state is showing that it wants to reward teachers who excel in the classroom. She says the old system saw pink slips dealt out around the expression “last in, first out,” or LIFO, meaning new teachers were the first to go in a system that rewards seniority and not achievement.
"I challenge any defenders of LIFO to explain to a parent why a great teacher was let go while his or her child will be spending a year in a classroom being taught by a less-than-great teacher," Rhee writes.
She sees the ruling benefiting students because it brings attention to a massive civil rights issue and quotes trial testimony from the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Thomas Kane to drive home this point. According to Kane, black students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are 43% more likely than their white counterparts to be taught by a teacher in the bottom 5% of effectiveness.
Rhee's opinion isn't surprising. Not only are her education endeavors in line with the belief that teachers are the number one factor in student achievement, but David Welch, the aforementioned founder of Students Matter and financial backer of the lawsuit, has donated money over the years to Rhee’s organization.
2. Diane Ravitch: Ruling is latest attempt to blame teachers, undermine public education
New York University education historian Diane Ravitch, on the other hand, is not too pleased with the ruling. In an editorial for the Huffington Post, Ravitch calls Judge Treu's ruling the "judicial version of No Child Left Behind." In her analysis of the verdict, she says the ruling implies low test scores are caused by bad teachers and that once tenured teachers are replaced with average teachers, all students will get high test scores. Fat chance, writes Ravitch, who has repeatedly argued education is not just about the teacher, but rather the whole picture. She sees responsibility and blame unevenly placed on teachers instead of bigger issues contributing to learning inequality, like poverty.
Ravitch also takes issue with the case's legal definition of "good" or "bad" teachers, which emphasizes test scores.
Ultimately, she says the students don't really win with this case, writing, "The one thing that does seem certain is that, contrary to the victory claims of hedge fund managers and right-wing editorial writers, no student will gain anything as a result of this decision. Millions more dollars will be spent to litigate the issues in California and elsewhere, but what will students gain? Nothing. The poorest, neediest students will still be in schools that lack the resources to meet their needs. They will still be in schools where classes are too large. They will still be in buildings that need repairs. They will still be in schools where the arts program and nurses and counselors were eliminated by budget cuts."
3. Dana Goldstein: Will the ruling really change schools?
Education journalist and author of forthcoming book "The Teacher War," Dana Goldstein wrote a historical account of the policies leading up to the Vergara v California ruling for the Atlantic. With less opinion and more facts, Goldstein makes a few interesting points. For one, she points out how despite the long history of teacher tenure, the actual idea is somewhat archaic. "It is difficult—actually, close to impossible—to argue that California’s teacher-tenure system makes sense," she writes.
Goldstein's main issue with California's tenure laws is how early teachers are evaluated—in March of their second year, before even two years of student data is available. She adds that even teachers say they shouldn't be evaluated for tenure until their fifth year.
This doesn't mean she believes the ruling is necessarily going to fix inequality, as she cites the fact that the best teachers aren't willing to teach in low-income, racially isolated neighborhoods. To truly address this, she says schools in low-income neighborhoods must be made into more attractive places for smart, ambitious people to want to spend their careers.
"To do that, those schools need excellent, stable principals who inspire confidence in great teachers. They need rich curricula that stimulate both adults and children. And ideally, their student bodies should be more socioeconomically integrated so schools are less overwhelmed by the social challenges of poverty," she writes.
4. Catherine Rampell: Cutting tenure won't solve the problem
Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell takes a similar stance to Goldstein as she argues attracting and retaining good teachers is the only way to improve education in high-poverty neighborhoods while pointing to some of California's more absurd tenure laws—tenure evaluations after only 18 months in the classroom—and "Last In, First Out" mentality.
Following this mindset, Rampell argues that eliminating job security without implementing other reforms may hurt the chances that good people will enter the profession, as low salaries made job security one of the key forms of compensation for teachers.
"Reducing job security may sound like a cheap way to improve teacher quality. But without some of the costlier changes necessary to make the most difficult teaching jobs more appealing to the most desirable workers, it seems unlikely to be the silver bullet school reformers are hoping for," she writes.
5. Arne Duncan versus Randi Weingarten
Following the court's decision, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement saying, “This decision presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect, and rewarding careers they deserve." Duncan's comments show support for the decision and a hope that other states will follow California's lead.
As you might expect, these remarks didn't sit well with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who penned an open letter in response. “Teachers across the country are wondering why the secretary of education thinks that stripping them of their due process is the way to help all children succeed,” Weingarten wrote.