EDITORIAL: Teacher tenure ruling could improve California schools by breaking union grip

FresnoJune 11, 2014 

Fourth-graders at Liberty Elementary School hold their whiteboards up in class.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

In his landmark ruling on an educational reform case, Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu concluded with a challenge to state lawmakers: Come up with legislation "providing each child in this state with a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education."

Treu apparently found it necessary to do so because he had just declared that the portions of California law that virtually guarantee teacher jobs for life are unconstitutional because the tenure provisions deprive poor and minority students of equal educational opportunities.

The tentative ruling could reshape public education in California. Recognizing its potential, Treu relies as precedent on the landmarks of Brown v. Board of Education, which held that segregated schools were inherently unequal, and the Serrano cases in California requiring equal funding for schools, no matter the wealth or poverty of the districts.

This is a crucial ruling for students, and the case, Vergara v. State of California, has the potential to loosen the chokehold that teachers unions have on public education.

This case was initiated by Students Matter, an educational reform nonprofit created by David F. Welch, a wealthy Silicon Valley businessman, on behalf of nine students in California schools. It challenged five long-standing statutes on teacher tenure, the dismissal procedure and seniority during layoffs that the suit said have a disproportionate burden on students in low-performing schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Newer teachers are more likely to get less-desirable school appointments -- those in inner cities and with higher incidence of crime and poverty. And in economic downturns, newer teachers are automatically let go before senior teachers, no matter how good they are.

Teachers unions see a larger, more dastardly agenda at work in this lawsuit -- to strip teachers of all protection so they can be fired at will, thus weakening the union's power to fight attempts to privatize education. That scenario is without merit.

The state, joined by the California Teachers Association, no doubt will appeal. It surely will be ammunition in the November runoff between union-supported Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Marshall Tuck, who is supported by charter schools and education reformers.

The larger struggle continues between unions and the reformers for control of public schools.

It was apt that the judge ended his ruling with a call to the Legislature. Regardless of the court outcome, the Legislature must craft new rules that give students and teachers equal consideration in state law.

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