Decision in California teacher tenure suit has New York advocates talking

A ruling against teacher tenure in a Los Angeles lawsuit today has local advocates considering their own challenges to teachers’ job protections.

The preliminary ruling in the lawsuit Vergara v. California strikes down a slate of laws around teacher tenure and firing in that state. The judge in the case, Rolf Treu, said data showing that poor and non-white students in California are more often taught by low-performing teachers convinced him that the laws violate the state’s constitution. The distribution of teacher quality “shocks the conscience,” Treu said in his ruling.

The lawsuit was brought by nine families with the support of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who began supporting education issues after he was unsettled by how difficult it was for his own children’s schools to fire teachers. Its backers include national critics of teachers unions, including Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, whose organization has a chapter in New York.

The lawsuit’s critics include teachers unions and others who note that tenure protects teachers from capricious administrators and say tenure helps make teaching an attractive profession.

“Today’s ruling would make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms and ignores all research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching,” Dennis van Roekel, president of the nation’s largest teachers union, said in response to the ruling.

The state of California and its teachers unions are gearing up to appeal, guaranteeing a long legal fight before the issue of teacher tenure in California is resolved. Still, their first-round success has Vergara supporters weighing whether to take on teacher tenure laws in other states.

“This decision demands a similar reexamination of how we value the rights of our youngest New Yorkers,” StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said in a statement. Eva Moskowitz, head of the Success Academy network of charter schools, called the decision “a significant social justice win for children.”

And Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union, said the organization is “ready and willing to file the same lawsuit in New York State.”

In New York City, most teachers are eligible for tenure protection after three years on the job. The percentage of eligible teachers who received tenure has declined in recent years, as the Bloomberg administration delayed many teachers’ tenure decisions in an effort to make the protection less automatic and pressure some educators to leave the system.

The Vergara suit hinged on the idea that poor students were more frequently taught by “low-performing” teachers, designated by value-added formulas that took student performance into account. A January 2013 report from StudentsFirstNY examining the city’s old teacher evaluation system found that teachers rated “unsatisfactory” disproportionately worked in schools with high concentrations of poor students in the 2011-12 school year.

When the city began calculating teacher “growth scores,” teachers with the highest and lowest scores were found to be distributed across the city’s schools—a function of a value-added system meant to control for factors like differences in neighborhood and students’ past performance.

Principals have been encouraged to take teachers’ growth scores, now calculated by the state, into account when making tenure recommendations this year. Meanwhile, the Rochester Teachers Association is challenging parts of the state’s teacher evaluation system in court, claiming that the state set teachers’ growth targets too high by not adequately accounting for student poverty.

On the United Federation of Teachers’ Facebook page, city teachers lamented the preliminary decision in the California case. “California, you are about to have a teacher shortage,” one posted.

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