Teaching Profession Opinion

Former LAUSD Leaders: Vergara Case a Turning Point in Education Equality

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 08, 2014 4 min read
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A response to “Why Vergara Is a Loser for Both Sides,” our first opinion post about Vergara v. California.

This post is written by Marlene Canter and Roy Romer

In all our years and roles in education, we’ve experienced firsthand almost every challenge facing our public school students. We’ve also seen many educational reforms that purport to solve those challenges come and go with varying levels of success. Roy led the first ever National Goals Panel on education in the 80s, and focused on education as chair of the National Governors Association before becoming Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). And Marlene, who was a special education teacher in LAUSD, co-founded a firm that became a very successful provider of teacher training materials, led the LAUSD Board through major transition just a few years ago, and is now the Board Chair for Green Dot Public Schools.

There is no “silver bullet” for education--one idea that will instantly fix everything--but we’ve become involved in something recently that perhaps comes the closest to a silver bullet as we’ve seen in our long careers. A lawsuit currently pending the court’s decision has the potential to dramatically improve educational outcomes for every single student in California, especially our neediest students, and potentially in other states.

Nine brave California children, with support from their parents and an organization called Students Matter, decided to stand up for their most basic educational right: the right to be taught by an effective teacher. The Vergara v. California lawsuit, which went on for two months in a Los Angeles courtroom, seeks to remove draconian and archaic state laws--laws that can be found on the books in other states across the country--that serve to drastically lower the quality of California’s teaching force.

It doesn’t take our decades of experience to know that effective teachers are the foundation of a quality education. But the current laws in California force--yes, force--school districts to make decisions about teachers’ careers based on a range of factors that have nothing to do with how well they teach. While the laws may seem innocuous on paper, in practice, they force districts to keep failing teachers in classrooms and deny the neediest students their chance to escape a life of poverty and disenfranchisement and fully realize their potential.

For instance, California law forces school districts to decide whether or not to grant tenure--basically, permanent employment--to a new teacher after 18 months on the job. Lifetime employment, if ever granted, should only be given to those teachers who have shown mastery of their subject matter and have proven they can inspire and educate students year in and year out. Forcing a principal to make this determination in such a short period of time is unfair to the principal, to the teacher and most importantly, to the kids.

Now, let’s turn the tables. While tenure is essentially automatically granted to every teacher after 18 months, the dismissal process for tenured teachers is so arduous, expensive and unlikely to succeed that only 91 of California’s nearly 275,000 teachers have been dismissed in the past 10 years--and the vast majority of those dismissals were for egregious conduct, not for being an ineffective teacher. Indeed, of the 91 total dismissals statewide over the past decade, a mere 19 were based, in whole or in part, on unsatisfactory performance. That simply defies logic. Teachers need due process that protects them from discrimination and unfair termination. But this is a process that essentially ensures that grossly ineffective teachers will end up locked into the system for decades.

When budget cuts or other circumstances require layoffs, California law forces school districts to make those decisions based on seniority alone, even though there is no correlation between seniority and effectiveness after a teacher’s first couple years in the classroom. So, if a school district has to decide between keeping an ineffective 30-year teacher or an effective 10-year teacher, the 10-year teacher gets the boot, by law, and the students at that school suffer the consequences.

Every effort to change these truly senseless and destructive laws has so far failed. The vigorous defenders of the current system are more interested in protecting the interests of adults over changing an institution that keeps our neediest students mired in poverty and neglect.

But this lawsuit stands to change all that, and not just in California. Vergara v. California puts the rights of students front and center, where they should be. Never before have the politically powerful protectors of the status quo had to explain with facts, reason and hard data exactly how the current system meets its obligation to protect a student’s constitutional right to a quality education. And when you look at these laws with students’ rights in mind, there’s no way they pass the test.

We look forward to the plaintiffs’ victory in Vergara v. California, and to the spark that this lawsuit has kindled to encourage the creation of a modern teacher career structure that values and empowers effective educators and promotes equal access to quality education for all students.

Marlene Canter is a former special education teacher, former President of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and current Board President of Green Dot. Roy Romer is a former LAUSD Superintendent, former Chair on the National Commission on the States and former Governor of Colorado.

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