An unusual lawsuit in Los Angeles may write the next chapter in scuffles between unionized K-12 teachers and school districts.  “The plaintiff claims the right to a good education is violated by job protections that make it too difficult to fire bad instructors.

While framed as a complaint over a questionable “right to a good education,” more likely the lawsuit stems from LA teachers’ intransigence on teacher evaluations.  The teacher evaluation donnybrook has been underway since 2010

The school district wants a foundation for rewarding good teachers and removing those who underperform.  After failing to get agreement, the district adopted a teacher evaluation protocol, where 30% of the performance score is tied to the improvement in student achievement test scores (i.e. not the absolute test score level, but the improvement or “value add” attributable to the teacher).

Arguments on teacher evaluations are not unique to Los Angeles.  Even among national authorities on teacher education there is vigorous argument about what is important and what can be revealed to the public.  For example the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education struggles to remain civil when discussing the National Council on Teacher Quality’s attempt to gather information on teacher education curricula and performance evaluation – leading to rankings for the 1400 colleges.

At some point in the past and to its current chagrin, the LA district acquiesced on “tenure,” allowing it for teachers on the job for 18 months.  Tenure now means teachers cannot be removed from the payroll without hideously costly and lengthy litigation (called due process by tenure’s proponents).  In the past few years, NY and LA have fired just 1 out of each 1,000 of their tenured teachers.  Tenure allows teachers to perform well, or perform not at all.

Until teacher evaluation issues are properly settled, staffing will continue based on seniority.  Unions like seniority because it suggests that all their members are competent.  Appearances are deceptive —seniority is harmful to both students and good teachers.  

If the “right to a good education” lawsuit is upheld by the courts, school districts will be forced to staff up with teachers whose evaluations reveal good performance.  Evaluations will need to include some student results.  But there is no guarantee that unions will withdraw from the excessive litigation needed to remove tenured but underperforming teachers, so district costs will skyrocket.

Tenure also comes with teaching quality angst at the university level.  Some have proposed that after the usual 6 to 7 years, tenure could be earned in either of two tracks – teaching or research (and “joint tenure” for any academic superheroes).  Perhaps some face-saving “administrative tenure” category can be invented as a K-12 destination for tenured underachievers. 

Only in academia are these oversized helpings of protection given to employees.  The rest of us in professional or other jobs can hope for salary and benefits consistent with performance.   Swapping tenure for performance pay would work best for children expecting their “good education.”

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research