Commentary

Teachers’ Job Security More Important than Kids’ Futures?

Having organized a labor union at a Boston candy store when I was 15, during the Depression — where students worked nights and weekends for 35 cents an hour — I am not anti-labor union. Threatening a strike as Christmas business neared, we won our 50 cents an hour.

But in recent years, as a reporter on education, I have found teachers’ unions bullishly and contractually protective of their members’ jobs, most commonly at the expense of low-income and minority students.

For one example, “The dismissal process for grossly ineffective teachers in California is so complex and costly that it does not work; many districts do not even bother trying” (“A historic victory for America’s kids,” Campbell Brown, New York Daily News, June 11).

The “historic victory” was in Vergara v. California, a case brought by nine student plaintiffs, decided on June 10 (“Historic Victory for Students in Vergara v. California: Court Strikes Down Five Provisions of the California Education Code as Unconstitutional,” studentsmatter.org/victory).

This decision, from Judge Rolf M. Treu of the California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles, is not final. He had to order a stay pending an appeal — inevitable in this case.

Nonetheless, as news of this potentially huge setback for other states’ teachers’ unions spreads, many parents of public school students are organizing to bring this life-changing equal-protection reform to their children.

A June 11 New York Daily News editorial put it bluntly:

“It adds up to a glaring equal-opportunity violation that’s been ignored for decades — a gaping wound that’s been treated like a common rash” (“Justice for students,” New York Daily News, June 11).

Said Judge Treu in his ruling: “Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience …

“Plaintiffs have proven … that the Challenged Statutes impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and that they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”

In its summary of the case brought by the student plaintiffs, the Students Matter organization — which was vital in the plaintiffs bringing the case to court — demonstrates how California’s current Permanent Employment Statute (other states have similar laws) makes it hard to dismiss a grossly incompetent teacher:

“(It) forces administrators to either grant or deny permanent employment to teachers after an evaluation period of less than 16 months — before new teachers even complete their beginner teacher induction programs and before administrators are able to assess whether a teacher will be effective long-term” (studentsmatter.org).

And dig this: “The process for dismissing a single ineffective teacher involves a borderline infinite number of steps, requires years of documentation, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and still, rarely ever works.

“Out of 275,000 teachers statewide, 2.2 teachers are dismissed for unsatisfactory performance per year on average, which amounts to 0.0008 percent.”

For the record, California’s two largest teachers unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, opposed the students.

Furthermore, there are times when a federal grant or a particular state legislature’s grant for education disappears because of a sharp decline in the economy, or a reversal of political party leadership in Congress or the state legislature. I’ve seen this in my coverage of education issues in New York State and elsewhere.

This, invariably, results in cuts in the number of teachers, which means those most recently hired are immediately fired. That includes younger teachers who belong to independent national organizations devoted to equal educational opportunities for low-income and handicapped students.

As I’ve seen and reported, these dedicated newcomers often are beginning to bring higher expectations and the enjoyment of learning into their classrooms.

So, too, is this happening in California, argues Campbell Brown, founder of Parents’ Transparency Project, a public education watchdog organization.

She writes in the Daily News: “California’s ‘last-in, first-out’ law gives top priority in a time of layoffs to ineffective teachers if they have seniority while better teachers with fewer years are sent packing.

“The judge called that a lose-lose situation, supported by logic that was ‘unfathomable.’”

She continues:

“The Vergara case reflects just the start of opportunities for action in other states, where many leaders are searching for better ways to evaluate teachers … in 38 states, the cumbersome teacher dismissal process allows multiple appeals. This is not due process; it is an undue burden on those trying to protect teacher quality.”

So, it’s now up to parents throughout the nation to follow Vergara’s lead “and take matters into their own hands. It is empowering to know the courts can help.”

“Empowering,” but often too rare for certain kids without labor unions representing them.

How many of you will remember the Vergara case in 2016?

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.