- - Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bad teachers must go. And now they might, in California. A California court, invoking common sense with the Constitution and the law, ruled that exaggerated protection of incompetent teachers without regard for the impact on their students is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution. It’s a welcome victory for students in poor and minority districts.

At issue was the “last-hired, first-fired” tenure rules governing public school teachers, which mandate that layoffs must be made solely on grounds of seniority. “No matter how gifted the junior teacher,” observed Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles, “and no matter how grossly incompetent the senior teacher,” the junior teacher must be sacked in a funding crisis.

Judge Treu called the arrangement “unfathomable” and “constitutionally unsupportable.” Such California laws were drafted by politicians in Sacramento who are always eager to pledge support for “quality education” when they’re in range of a microphone or a television camera. Once they step away from the podium, they embrace the lobbyists for the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers with the promise to legislate whatever job-security guarantees the unions want. Between 2003 and 2012, these unions spent $166 million on ballot measures and political campaigns for Democrats.

This generosity has paid off with the best job security an incompetent teacher might imagine. California rewards teachers with near-lifetime employment after just a year and a half in the classroom. Once past probation, even the most incompetent teacher is invulnerable. Since the appeals process can take a decade and cost $450,000, it’s easier to quietly transfer the worst of the worst to the poorest school districts where they’ll remain “out of sight.”

One witness testified that students in classrooms stuck with bad teachers can expect to miss $1.4 million in earnings over their lifetimes, compounding disadvantage. To break the cycle of poverty, nine students went to court with the argument that disparity caused by union contracts denies students a quality education. They argued that schools with incompetent teachers are the equivalent of the “separate but equal” schools decreed unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

To the astonishment of the political establishment, Judge Treu agreed, and his preliminary ruling suspends tenure for public school teachers. The unions see this as semi-catastrophic. “This wrong-headed court ruling will serve to discourage people from going into this important profession,” says Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers. “Our students are the real victims of this court ruling, no matter the rhetoric coming from the other side.”

The future for the children is of secondary importance to the unions. Good teachers are worth every penny they’re paid, and they have the most to lose from tenure. A teacher’s ability to inspire children isn’t measured by time in service. Judge Treu’s ruling offers relief to the best teachers by ensuring that decisions are based solely on performance.

The unions will surely appeal this ruling. They have the expensive lawyers to fight for their spoils. But, Judge Treu’s courageous ruling provides a glimmer of hope for children trapped in an educational system that cares more about teacher and administrator pay and perks than making sure that children get the education they’re entitled to.