In one of the first debates among the four leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates, only one — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — expressed enthusiasm for taking on controversial teacher tenure and seniority laws in California.
“Yes, I would reform it as governor, because we have to address the fact that system is broken when so many poor children and so many children of color are not making it in this state,” Villaraigosa said in the debate sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle at the City Club on Tuesday.
By contrast, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the current front-runner in the November 2018 race, argued that a more important issue to address was the “crisis” of demoralized teachers.
Villaraigosa backed the highly contentious Vergara lawsuit that charged that minority students’ constitutional rights were violated by being taught disproportionately by less effective teachers as a result of the state’s seniority and tenure laws.
The trial judge in the case ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but his ruling was overturned by a higher appeals court. The issue died, at least in the courts, when the California Supreme Court declined to overturn the appeals court ruling.
Villaraigosa pointed out that California was an outlier by allowing teachers to get permanent status within the first two years that they are on the job. He said when he was mayor, teachers could decide which classes they wanted to teach, based on their seniority, even if they weren’t always the most qualified to teach them. Seniority, he said, “should be a factor, but not the only factor.”
Newsom, who last weekend received the endorsement of the California Teachers Association, took a different position.
“None of us is for bad teachers,” he said. “None of us is standing here defending lousy teachers.”
At the same time, he said, the issue “has been litigated,” referring to the Vergara lawsuit.
“The biggest crisis we have is the demoralization of teachers and the need to recruit more teachers, and retain more teachers, and train more teachers,” he said.
“Firing teachers is not a school reform strategy,” he said.
Rather than through the courts, he said the issue could be addressed by the Legislature or through collective bargaining agreements at the local level.
“There is a right way of doing things, and there is a wrong way of doing things,” he said. “You have to build trust and partnerships.”
“If you want to go fast, go alone,” he said. “If you want to go far, you have to go together.”
Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said she had talked with many teachers who themselves feel that two years is too short to make decisions regarding tenure or permanent status. But she said, “If you have a shortage of teachers, this is a silly conversation. They (school districts) are not laying them off in two years or five years, because there is no one wanting to take their jobs.”
She also lamented what she called “the demoralization of the profession,” suggesting that focusing on tenure would do nothing to address it. “We ought to be looking our teachers in the eye and saying ‘thank for taking the most important job in America.'” She suggested that other issues were far more important than focusing on teacher tenure. “We have to create more opportunities for teachers to earn a living wage, more time to collaborate with each other, time to constantly be improving their abilities,” she said.
State Treasurer John Chiang said bluntly that he did not support the trial court judge’s ruling in the Vergara lawsuit declaring California’s teacher tenure laws unconstitutional.
Without providing details, he said he does support “updating the due process standards (for teachers) in the state of California.” But like most of his fellow candidates, he said it was more important to address the working conditions teachers face.
“We have to look at how we intervene and support teachers in the classroom, how to address teacher shortage issues, the teacher recruitment issue, how teachers can get the training and professional development they need so we can ensure that they are successful.”
What else did they say? For the entire debate, go the San Francisco Chronicle website here.
To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.