The Bar-On Brief: Fighting teacher tenure – the nationwide movement has just begun

California courts send a powerful message to the country

By Shauli Bar-On , Columnist

The Bar-On Brief: a weekly column
The Bar-On Brief: a weekly column

It’s almost impossible to fire a teacher in the state of California unless he or she committed a crime. Sorry, but poor teaching is not a crime. Not yet at least.

I first began exploring the history of teacher tenure in early 2014 when a Los Angeles Superior Court ruled the tenure laws unconstitutional in the case Vergara v. California.

The plaintiffs argued that the state denies students of equal education by keeping unqualified individuals in their teaching jobs. Judge Rolf M. Treu agreed and declared the policy unconstitutional.

Unions were shocked and appealed to a higher court.

Last week, the California appeals court overturned the decision, giving unions a sigh of relief. A quick sigh, I should say, because if I were them, I would start panicking.

The unions may have won the case, but the fight to end tenure has just begun.

The court has indeed ruled in favor of teacher tenure constitutionality, but as appeals court Justice Roger W. Borren wrote in his opinion, “The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea.’”

Borren is sending a message to state and national legislators urging them to make amends to the law.

This is just the beginning: similar court cases are pending in New York and Minnesota.

A nationwide movement is on the rise. But reform can only begin from the courts. Government and societal revisions are the only way to bring about change.

On average, teachers are granted tenure after three years in education. To remove a tenured teacher, it costs the district around $200,000 in investigation and legal fees, according to USA Today.

Furthermore, most schools have adopted the “last in first out” policy, one that values veterans over new teachers, regardless of the quality of their teaching.

Tenure laws were put in place in the late 1800s when the National Educator’s Association met in Chicago. They were tightened during the suffrage movement of the early 1900s to protect female teachers from being fired after marriage.

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Illustration by Mila Sviderskaya

There have been attempts to reform the laws and effectively remove inadequate teachers from their positions. But the majority of states, California included, can’t seem to solve the problem.

“The Lemon Dance,” coined by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a policy that relocates incompetent teachers to other schools. This “solution” fixes nothing. The same incompetent teachers will keep their jobs at the expense of a different school’s students.  

The unions’ negotiation power is too strong for the government to deal with, even in proposals with logical ideas.

Massachusetts’ former governor William Weld advocated having teachers take competency tests every five years to in order prove their certifications. His movement was blocked by – you guessed it – the unions.

They accused him of being “anti-teacher.”

But Weld was not anti-teacher, and neither am I. In fact, I would argue teachers are undervalued in society. They have made some of the biggest impacts on my life.

Earlier this year, I attended the memorial service for Nick Ferentinos, the legendary adviser for The Epitaph in the 80s and 90s.

He was never formally my teacher, but the conversations I had with him were just as if not more enlightening than those I have with my current teachers.

Nick passed away this year after battling cancer.

His wife and the school sponsored a ceremony in his honor, inviting all of his previous students to share their memories of Nick.

I saw just a touch of Nick’s influence on the world when I sat in a full-capacity auditorium with hundreds of his former students, many who came with children of their own.

As part of the memorial service, one of his former students mentioned an interesting thought Nick used to share.

Nick would say, “One day, school principals would have to prove themselves by working really really hard to earn the title of ‘teacher.’”

This profession should not be a starting position, but rather a position of honor.

And just like every position of honor, teachers should have to work to keep it.

And with that, I rest my case.