Teacher survey: Change tenure, layoff laws

January 13, 2015

Gov. Jerry Brown said last week he’s open to changing tenure and other teacher employment laws at issue in the Vergara v. State of California lawsuit, and most teachers in a new survey say they want to change them, too.

Most of the 506 public school district teachers who answered the online questionnaire, which was released Monday, said they favor lengthening how long it takes for teachers to receive tenure and making job effectiveness, not just seniority, a factor in layoff decisions. They also support a less drawn-out process for dismissing poor-performing teachers – as long as teachers have an opportunity to improve and their peers are involved in evaluating them.

Teach Plus, a national organization of teachers, funded the survey, which was conducted by Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, an independent opinion research firm with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The survey responses are more nuanced than the positions of the unions that represent them – the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. Both unions are defendants in the Vergara lawsuit, which claims laws regarding teacher tenure, firing and layoffs disproportionately hurt poor and minority children, saddling them with the state’s worst-performing teachers. Last year, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled the laws unconstitutional. The two unions have filed an appeal.

“The evidence at trial overwhelmingly showed that these statutes promote and support important public interests like attracting and retaining qualified teachers for California public schools while providing objective, fair, and transparent procedures in the event of economic layoffs,” the unions stated in announcing their appeal.

The views of teachers in the survey offer a path to compromise, “a ‘third way’ between reformer calls to throw out all teacher job protections and old-guard calls to preserve virtually all elements of the current system,” Teach Plus, which has called for changing the laws challenged in the Vergara lawsuit, said in its summary of the teacher survey.

The survey included a cross-section of new and veteran teachers from various grade levels. Its four main findings, according to a Teach Plus summary, are:

Teachers highly value tenure but support making it more performance-based, granted after a longer period than two years on the job under current law. Five years, on average, would be the appropriate length of time, the respondents said.

Teachers believe that classroom performance should be an important element in any layoff decision.

The current system needs to better support struggling teachers while setting a time frame for firing persistently ineffective teachers.

Teachers should be given a central role in developing policies on tenure, layoffs and dismissals.

Governor interested in middle ground

Source: webcast of press conference on the state budget

Gov. Brown discusses the Vergara lawsuit at a press conference on Jan. 9.

Gov. Brown said he’d be open to changing tenure and related laws when asked by a reporter at a press conference on the state budget Friday if he expected legislative action this year in response to the Vergara ruling. His three-minute answer indicated he’s struggling for the right balance.

While saying he understands why teachers believe tenure is important, he said, “It is a contentious issue, and I would welcome any improvement that people could suggest.” Charter schools, most of which are non-union, aren’t bound by the teacher protections at issue in Vergara, he said, and that system “functions pretty darn well.”

Brown said the “real intensive focus on the Vergara-type issues … isn’t really getting at the really big problem, and the big problem is training teachers, recruiting them, retaining them, inspiring them and then their doing the same thing with students.” And he associated the Vergara lawsuit with a string of ”silver bullets” – “grandiose programs these last few years, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top” – that “seem all to have faltered.”

But then, in a final nod to those who brought the suit, he acknowledged that some teachers “are not so good, and getting rid of them is a nightmare. So I certainly am open to dealing with that.”

Brown had not commented extensively on Vergara since Attorney General Kamala Harris filed an appeal of Treu’s decision on the state’s and the governor’s behalf in August. That one-page appeal cited technical reasons, not a defense of the laws. It said only a Court of Appeal and the state Supreme Court can issue rulings that have a statewide impact, not Superior Courts; therefore, “changes of this magnitude, as a matter of law and policy, require appellate review.” The appeal also faulted Treu for not detailing the factual and legal bases for his ruling.

Both sides in Vergara are expected to submit briefs to the 2nd District Court of Appeal early this year, but the court has no deadline for a ruling. And so the Legislature may not be in a hurry to act this year.

“I find it counter-intuitive that the governor is appealing a court decision that compels the Legislature to do the right thing, yet says he’s open to any improvements,” Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, who has unsuccessfully proposed bills that would change tenure and dismissal laws, said in a statement Tuesday. “Teachers deserve reasonable job security, but as a Legislature we have the moral and legal obligation to put the interests of students first.”

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, called Brown’s comments “a mixed bag.” He said the union is pleased that Brown has appealed Treu’s ruling and recognizes that the way to make teachers more effective is improving the process of training and mentoring teachers.

However, he said Brown is “mixing apples and oranges” when comparing teacher contracts of charter schools with other public schools. Since most charters are non-unionized, teachers speak less freely about their workplace conditions, he said. “It would be like sticking a microphone before Wal-Mart workers (a non-union workplace) and asking them to talk about their jobs,” he said.

Students Matter, the nonprofit organization that brought the Vergara lawsuit on behalf of nine student plaintiffs, said in a statement Tuesday: “Students Matter agrees with the sentiment that the Vergara ruling does not represent a silver bullet but rather a critical piece in creating an equitable education landscape where all kids have access to a quality education. The governor’s willingness to explore tenure is a great step forward.”

Mike Stryer, a former Los Angeles Unified teacher who is Teach Plus’ vice president for district and union policy, said Brown would find his views parallel those of most teachers. Teach Plus, he said, welcomes the opportunity to modify existing laws.

Pechthalt countered that he’s confident the positions of the union are fully consistent with the views of its members.

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