Citing the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended segregation, a California judge ruled Tuesday that tenure and the traditional “last in, first out” teacher employment practices support an unequal public education system that violates the Constitution.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu determined in Vergara v. State of California that the protections of tenure and seniority should not apply because ineffective teachers were being concentrated in California’s low income/high minority areas. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan supports the ruling, calling it a “mandate to fix these problems.” But critics, such as National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel, called the decision “deeply flawed.”

“Today’s ruling would make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms,” Van Roekel said in a press release, adding that it “ignores all research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching.”

The implications of this court decision are far-reaching, teachers advocates say, because federal education reforms, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, place teachers—and their unions—under enormous pressure to perform to “effective” standards. These standards are determined in part by controversial state standardized tests, such as the Common Core curriculum.

Professor Mark Naison, co-founder of the Badass Teachers Association and the chairman of the African and African-American Studies Department at Fordham University, said: “This is a sign of a nation that has lost its moral compass.”

He called the ruling a “declaration of war on teachers around the county who depend on tenure to protect them from abusive administrators, self-interested parents and intolerable interference with their jobs from elected officials. It will help drive the best teachers out of the profession and make recruiting talented people to the profession far more difficult. Children will suffer while teachers work in fear!”

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New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) spokesman Carl Korn called it a “horrendous decision.” He said it’s important for people to understand what tenure means for public school teachers.

“It’s not a guaranteed job for life,” he told the Press. “For the first three years, a teacher is on probation and can be terminated for [almost] any reason. Tenure simply means that if a district wants to bring charges against a teacher, those teachers are entitled to due process.”

The California Teachers Association has said it will appeal the ruling. Korn believes that it will be successful in appealing this “meritless” decision when a more “even-handed judge” weighs in. NYSUT doesn’t want New York lawmakers to follow suit and weaken tenure protections here.

“Especially in New York, with all of the protests [over the Common Core curriculum and education cutbacks], how can a teacher speak out about public concerns over the budget?” Korn asked. “How could they speak out to challenge the [state] commissioner of education if they could be fired at the whim of their administrators? Without this protection, what’s to stop administrators from firing their most highly paid teachers? How does that benefit children?”

Judge Treu said he was ruling in behalf of disadvantaged children, but how striking down teachers’ tenure will help them in the classroom is far from clear.


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