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Calif. teacher tenure ruled unconstitutional; NYSUT President decries decision

Earlier this week, California Supreme Court judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that California’s teacher tenure statues violate the state’s constitution. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) President Karen Magee, in a Wednesday press statement, called the court’s decision “horrendous” and the suit, Vergara v. California, an attack on unions brought by “millionaires, their public relations firms and front groups.” The nine students that filed the suit claimed that statues regulating the hiring and dismissal of teachers violated their guarantee of equal protection under the law. The judge agreed, comparing the case to Brown v. Board of Education.

NYSUT officers, Left to right: Martin Messner, Secretary-Treasurer; Catalina Fortino, Vice President; Karen Magee, President; Andrew Pallotta, Executive Vice President; Paul Pecorale, Vice President.
NYSUT Media Relations press release

Magee interprets the decision as not a ruling on the constitutionality of tenure laws in general, but rather a condemnation of California’s complex process for dismissing poorly performing teachers, a process that can take years. She notes that New York State has streamlined tenure laws so that disciplinary cases are settled within five months. Additionally, New York teachers are not granted tenure rights until after completing three years in their certification area. California grants tenure after two years, although may be recommended for tenure after only 18 months.

The plaintiffs in the suit claimed that the California statues allowed ineffective teachers to keep their jobs, and these teachers disproportionately taught in low-income and minority schools. The lengthy and expensive process involved in firing a bad teacher prevented many districts from removing these teachers from the classroom. The judge found evidence to support the students’ claim that ineffective teachers were rotated through high-poverty schools, a practice known as “dance of the lemons,” negatively affecting the education of students in these schools.

The judge also found fault with the FIFO (first-in, first-out) statue that requires schools dismiss the newest teachers first when eliminating positions. The FIFO rule does not grant exceptions for gifted junior teachers or ineffective senior teachers. Magee says this provision is necessary to protect teachers with years of experience from losing their jobs in place of new teachers who earn smaller salaries.

Magee believes the suit was not filed to support students or improve education in California. The purpose of this attack on labor rights, Magee maintains, is to break unions and deny teachers a voice in their work place. Tenure assures teachers due process rights, and this guarantee that they will not be fired for speaking out best positions them to advocate for their students.

"The disturbing trend in America today, supported by billionaires like the Walton family and the Koch brothers, is to take away union protections and the employment rights of all working people. They want a low-paid compliant workforce that can be fired at will. Teachers are their current target. The students their so-called reformers claim to protect would face a world of diminished opportunity if they are allowed to prevail." – Karen Magee, NUSUT President

The union has, in the past, taken issue with wealthy philanthropists trying to sway education policy. Last month, the union organized a picket against a gathering in Lake Placid, N.Y. The $1,000-per-person event, sponsored by Education Reform Now, was a conference to discuss education reform. According to NYSUT spokesperson Carl Korn, the group, made up of hedge fund managers and billionaires, seeks to increase the use of standardized tests, expand the number of charter schools and shut teachers out of the decision-making process.

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