School & District Management Opinion

New Poll Challenges Union Stance on Tenure

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 13, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

California’s teacher unions got yet another wake-up call over the weekend with the release of the USC/Dornsife poll by the Los Angeles Times.

Under the page 1 lead headline of “Voters take a dim view of teacher tenure,” veteran education reporter Howard Blume summarized the findings that Californians of all races, ages, and political leanings agree that “teachers receive tenure much too quickly. And they believe that performance should matter more than seniority when teachers are laid off.”

In other words, the voting public strongly favors the conclusions reached in the Vergara case last August.

In that case Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu issued what we called a crafty and limited decision that suggested that moving the time to tenure from two years to three would be acceptable and that streamlining due process a bit would pass his muster. Even in the question of seniority in case of layoff, the most contentious of the issues, he suggested only that layoff rules must “consider” student impacts of layoffs “among other factors” that could include seniority.”

In other words: small, reasonable legislative fixes would answer his objections.

California’s two teacher unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, have followed the line that Vergara is vulnerable to being overturned on appeal. I believe it should be overturned because upholding the current ruling would create terrible constitutional law, not because there are no issues with current statutes.

But as the polls show, the state’s two teacher unions badly miscalculate voter sentiment. Their lawyers may be able to make Vergara disappear, but the underlying issues won’t.

The electorate does not understand tenure, or why teachers need it. The unions have done a horrible job of making the case. By not addressing the relatively easy fixes in existing tenure and seniority rules, the unions risk a rising tide of sentiment that would destroy the employment system begun with the rise of public civic service a century ago. (EdWeek.org blogger and veteran Los Angeles teacher Walt Gardner sees an even broader attack on public education itself.)

And that’s what the union’s opponents want. Students Matter, the organization that bankrolled the Vergara lawsuit sees itself as a social movement; the courts are just an instrument to that end. They think that ending teacher tenure is a civil rights movement and have sold the public on the image of lazy older teachers sleepwalking through their work to the detriment of students.

Let’s look at the numbers from the USC/Dornsife poll of 1,504 registered voters with a large oversample of Latino voters and a smaller oversample of African-American voters.

More than three quarters (78%) of respondents said that teacher layoffs should be based on either teachers who had poor classroom observations (53%) or teachers whose students performed poorly on standardized tests (26%). Only 8% of respondents supported laying off teachers with less seniority.

On the question of tenure itself, a whopping 38% said that teachers should not receive tenure at all. The most frequent responses, among all races and ethnic groups, were that teachers should receive tenure only after 4 to 10 years experience, not two years as current law provides.

These huge gulfs are not a quirk of this poll. A PACE/USC poll conducted last spring found similar results as did one carried out last fall by the Huffington Post.

As long as the CTA and the CFT see the preservation of every existing due process step, a short time to tenure, and singular seniority as the symbolic “line in the sand,” the more their opponents can attack tenure itself, creating an employment-at-will labor system similar to the one that exists in most of the private sector.

And they can attack union-friendly legislators and other office holders with the charge that they want to protect bad teachers.

There is a better strategy. The same USC/Dornsife poll shows very high levels of support for teachers, a belief that they are underpaid, and a willingness to support them with more resources, particularly for disadvantaged students.

The public likes and trusts teachers, and they most like the teachers they know.

When asked which two groups would you trust most to improve public schools, 50% answered “teachers at schools in your community"; 48% said parents of public school students.

No other group or organization came close. The CTA, or teacher unions in general, was trusted to improve schools by 22% of respondents followed by school administrators and Gov. Jerry Brown. “Philanthropists who seek to change the traditional education system” came in last with 14%.

I and others have written this before, and it needs to be said again: not solving the retail-level issues presented in the Vergara case prevents the state’s teacher unions from fixing elemental problems in public education.

In earlier posts, I wrote about a 24-month window of opportunity opening for California’s teacher unions to bring teaching and unionism into the 21st Century and the inherent challenge in Brown’s “I would rather trust our teachers” stance. Trust is a fragile thing; it creates an obligation to reciprocate. It’s a time for big ideas, such as organizing around quality.

In the Vergara trial, the defendants’ expert witnesses pointed repeatedly toward the large systemic causes of student underachievement that were more potent than the due process and seniority statutes under attack. Rather than fight against the weight of public opinion, the CTA and CFT need to create the kind of educational infrastructure that solves larger problems and reveal Vergara as the sideshow that it is.

If there were a good teacher training and induction system, so that teachers were well trained and mentored as they began to teach, would any one care whether it took two years, or three, or four to gain tenure? Elements of due process could be built into early teaching, just as formative feedback should be built into all forms of teaching. Maybe tenure rolls gradually like the tide. Maybe first year teachers should have a little due process, just to show that the teacher induction system is working. Maybe second year teachers should have a little more, etc.

If there were robust forms of teacher leadership in the form of peer review —a practice I’ve written about and endorsed for decades —why would anyone care whether there were five, or seven, or thirteen due process steps in dismissal cases? Teachers would have vetted the original evidence: both the individual supervising teachers and the local district peer review panel. All this would have taken place before the first step in the dismissal procedure.

As a state, California offers teacher unions a unique political opportunity to shape the future of teaching and of unionism itself. The combination of a supportive governor, a friendly state superintendent, and a Democratic legislature opens the door to a progressive union-driven agenda.

Thus far, the unions have decided to fight small political battles rather than reach for larger prizes.

California’s teachers deserve better.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.