In a student versus school system lawsuit (Vergara v. State of California), the students won on their claim that grossly incompetent teachers deny them of their right to an education.  The judge found that school systems “permit too many grossly incompetent teachers to remain in classrooms across the state — and found that those teachers shortchange their students by putting them months or years behind their peers in math and reading.”  He said that the legal system makes it almost impossible to remove incompetent teachers.  The case may eventually loosen teacher’s unions’ chokehold on teacher quality across the nation, but the unions are almost compelled to fight because the court’s findings are so embarrassing.  On the other hand, degenerate tenure cases damage both students and good teachers, so there may be support for the ruling among union members with a long view.

The Vergara ruling could be a big win for public school students if three provisos are met.  First, the ruling must survive court appeals.  Second, school systems must implement it swiftly and fairly.  Third, student advocates must continue the push for reform on other key issues. 

The union has already staked out the preposterous stance that a school system’s extreme difficulty in removing incompetent tenured teachers is merely a matter of due process.  In California and at the national level, they talk as though the primary purpose of schools is to provide union jobs rather than to educate students.  The public usually backs teachers, but on the tenure issue that support may slip away, in part because the issue has now been successfully framed as a civil rights matter, not just another labor law tiff.

For students to benefit, school administrators must follow the spirit of the ruling.  They must swiftly remove incompetent teachers – tenured or not.  As time ticks by, incompetent teachers damage students.  Student education must not be put on hold or suffer further damage while attorneys and courts tolerate delaying tactics.

Tenure should not be granted as readily as it is in many school districts (e.g., Los Angeles gives tenure within 18 months on the job).  Tenure should be about high performance, not seniority rotting in place.  Grants of tenure should require consistent good teaching performance over five or more years.  One component within teacher assessment must be the improvements in test performance exhibited by the students.

The court found that compared with others, Hispanic and black students were more frequently assigned to horribly incompetent teachers.  School administrators need to address that by dismissing the incompetent teachers – not by “redistributing the incompetence more fairly.”

Student advocates deserve a short end-zone celebration, but they must not overstate the scope of the ruling.  The ruling addresses removal of bad teachers, but it does not address common core hysteria, classroom size, mainstreaming, social promotion, and adequate student testing.   Students still need our help with those issues. 

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research.  This piece was published on June 12, 2014 and is available in Real Clear Policy