Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu declared California’s tenure protections for public schoolteachers unconstitutional Tuesday, rattling powerful unions that support protection for long-term educators.
Opponents view tenure as a free-pass from accountability for low-quality teachers and nine student plaintiffs made that argument in a lawsuit, Vergara v. California, alleging unprepared and incompetent teachers were savaging their students’ potential.
The judge leaned on the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which outlawed racial segregation in schools, finding California's tenure system deprives minority and low-income students of equal education, The Associated Press reports.
The court did not make the decision available in digital form, instead opting to sell printed copies.
The National Education Association, the largest American teachers union, promptly condemned the ruling.
"A California Superior Court judge today sided with Silicon Valley multimillionaire David Welch and his ultrarich cronies in the meritless lawsuit of Vergara v. State of California,” the group fumed in a press release. “The lawsuit was brought by deep-pocketed corporate special interests intent on driving a corporate agenda geared toward privatizing public education and attacking educators."
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel called the ruling "deeply flawed."
“Let’s be clear: This lawsuit was never about helping students, but is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda on public schools and students while working to privatize public education,” Van Roekel said. “Today’s ruling hurts students and serves only to undermine the ability of school districts to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”
The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest U.S. teachers union, also bristled at the news.
"While this decision is not unexpected, the rhetoric and lack of a thorough, reasoned opinion is disturbing," said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a release.
"[Treu] argues, as we do, that no one should tolerate bad teachers in the classroom. He is right on that. But in focusing on these teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, he strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice," Weingarten said.
"This will not be the last word," she added. "No wealthy benefactor with an extreme agenda will detour us from our path to reclaim the promise of public education."
In a June 2 press release AFT complained that “three exemplary teachers” were “named as ‘ineffective teachers’ by the plaintiffs’ lawyers” without negative evaluations or complaints on file, and expressed confidence of success on appeal.
Treu stayed his opinion, which does not apply to public universities, pending appeal.
Foes of teacher tenure immediately celebrated the protection's possible judicial demise. Proposing modifications to teacher tenure has proven risky for elected politicians and appointed education officials in the past.
Bonnie Reiss, California's secretary of education under former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, praised the ruling.
"Too often, it is nearly impossible to pass needed education reforms through the legislature," said Reiss, global director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute. "The broken tenure system unfairly hurts our state's most vulnerable students and denies equal education for all."
The Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter school group, called the decision “a tremendous victory" for students.
"Any framework that prioritizes hire date does a disservice to teachers, who deserve merit-based appreciation like other professionals, and does a disservice to students in need of a superior educator at the head of the classroom," Center for Education Reform President Kara Kerwin said in a release.
Updated on June 10, 2014: This article was updated to include reaction from the American Federation of Teachers.