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Teachers' Union Victory in California

The California Supreme Court's refusal to hear a lower court ruling protecting teacher tenure and seniority-based layoffs arising from the Vergara v. California lawsuit was lambasted by critics as dooming tens of thousands of students to a life of poverty ("Students Lose, Liberals Elated," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 23). That's hyperbole.

For one thing, the state's highest court by a 4-3 vote did not rule on whether the tenure statute in California is a good idea, but only if it is constitutional. That's an important distinction given short shrift in the media. It's now up to the state Legislature to make changes if it wishes to do so ("Now that the Vergara case is over, let's reform teacher tenure laws," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 24).

For another, if teachers unions and tenure are as bad for students as their critics claim, then why are public schools in Massachusetts and Minnesota, which have powerful unions, considered the best in the country?  Is it possible that other factors beside teachers unions and tenure are responsible?

The truth is that so much of any school's success is due to circumstances beyond the control of even the best teachers in the best schools.  Yet even Minnesota is not immune.  In April, a group of parents backed by philanthropists filed suit challenging the state's job protections for teachers ("Teacher Tenure Is Challenged Again in a Minnesota Lawsuit," The New York Times, Apr. 13). 

Whether they will prevail is hard to predict because the situation in Minnesota is different from that in California.  Teachers in the former are granted tenure after three years, while teachers in the latter receive tenure after only 18 months. Further, California's public schools are populated by far more low-income and English language learners than Minnesota's.

Regardless of what happens in Minnesota or in other states, however, I don't believe that the teacher tenure war is over by a long shot.  There is a well orchestrated and well funded campaign to abolish teachers unions. The latest example is Connecticut, where Martinez v. Malloy argues that the state's tenure law violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. ("Vergara-Inspired School Choice Lawsuit in Connecticut Turns Focus to Federal Courts," educationviews.org, Aug. 25).

I'm not saying that there have not been abuses regarding tenure. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, what is necessary is for state legislatures across the country to amend the laws to make them more reasonable.  Extend the number of years it takes for teachers to be granted tenure, but at the same time prevent principals from engaging in vindictive firings and harassment.  Doing both would balance the rights of students and teachers.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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.

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