With the focus on last week’s reversal of Vergara v. California, it’s easy to miss the profoundly important changes happening largely below the radar.
While the decision has been generally characterized as “a win for teachers unions” and “a loss for reformers,” the fact is that Vergara has brought much needed attention to statutes that—regardless of their constitutionality—are not serving our students or the teaching profession well.
Major stakeholders increasingly recognize this, as do some legislators who have previously steered clear of the “third-rail issues” of tenure, layoffs, dismissal and teacher evaluation. Democratic legislators—unafraid to tackle issues historically avoided by virtually the entire bloc of Democrats in the California state legislature—are quietly leading this critical movement.
Last year, Assembly Member Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) courageously stood up to intense (and ultimately successful) opposition to a bill she introduced that provided for a more differentiated teacher evaluation system and for the inclusion of student progress in evaluation. She has since introduced a similar bill in the current legislative session.
In addition to Weber, Assembly Member Susan Bonilla (D- Concord) has introduced yet another bill, which deals substantively with key issues of tenure, layoff and dismissal statutes, while also providing support for developing or struggling teachers.
The growing political will of the California legislature in addressing these issues does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it reflects a clear and growing awareness by major constituent groups (teachers, school leaders and parents) that the current statutes do not benefit students, particularly low-income students and students of color.
Increasingly, these groups are making their voices heard and asking for sensible changes to antiquated systems.
Teachers are Leading the Way on This
Mayra Lara, an English teacher at Maywood Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), persevered through four pink slips to be able to teach in a community where she has deep roots.
Kip Morales, a teacher laid off from an LAUSD traditional public school, took his exceptional teaching talents to a public charter school.
Other teachers, including the fellows and alumni of the Teach Plus Los Angeles Teaching Policy Fellowship, have advocated for change to California’s primarily seniority-based layoff system in favor of a system that both values performance and honors experience in any needed layoff-decision. This “middle path” provides a clear basis for legislative action and is supported by a clear majority of California public school teachers.
We Asked Teachers
A 2014 Teach Plus poll of 500+ traditional public school teachers throughout California found that teachers want to make tenure a true-earned professional benchmark, seek adoption of a layoff system that recognizes great teaching, and support a streamlined dismissal system that retains critical elements of due process.
On average, California teachers favor a system where tenure is earned after five years—and only with clear demonstration of teaching effectiveness. What’s more, 70 percent of California teachers support use of performance in layoff-decisions, something that is explicitly prohibited by law in California.
The voting public in California holds even stronger views on these issues—82 percent of registered voters (according to a 2015 USC/LA Times Poll) believe that performance should be factored into layoff-decisions while 86 percent favor making teachers eligible for tenure after a minimum of four years.
Despite strong public and stakeholder support for change, to date only a handful of Democratic legislators in California have stepped forward to address the complex issues of teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissal.
The fact remains that passage of legislation hinges on an emergence of a broader coalition of Democratic legislators—those whose support for legislative change in this area has happened thus far only behind closed doors. Their backing would reflect broad stakeholder support and would go far in strengthening K-12 public education for our students, particularly low-income students and students of color.