Union-backed California Gov. Brown appeals Vergara decision

heather kaysColumn by Heather Kays

California Gov. Jerry Brown has decided to appeal the Vergara decision on teacher tenure and other traditional job protections for teachers. This isn’t a surprising move, considering how much political backing Brown has received from teachers’ unions.

If upheld by the court, the Vergara decision will make changes to job protections for teachers, including eliminating tenure, seniority, and teacher-dismissal procedures that protect incompetent teachers and negatively impact students’ education.

Brown now has to stand up and explain why he thinks it should be unbelievably expensive and time-consuming to dismiss bad teachers. He has to say it should be more difficult to fire a teacher for cause than to fire other state employees. He has to say seniority, not effectiveness, should be the key factor in deciding which teachers get laid off.

When Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled in Vergara that traditional job protections for teachers were doing harm to California children’s education, especially to low-income children, it was a huge victory for families in that state. Since then, a similar lawsuit has been brought by parents in New York. Treu stated, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

As Treu noted, ending teacher tenure and “last in, first out” policies is an important step in extending educational opportunity to all students. It is an education solution that would be easy to achieve and cut costs while raising quality.

But it’s not surprising Brown would appeal the decision on behalf of his angry friends, the teachers’ unions. Time and again, teachers’ union leaders and members claim changing their job protection laws would eliminate due process and result in the unfair firing of good teachers. While American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told USnews.com in July, “Due process is not intended to be a job for life, a cloak for incompetence or a reason for managers not to manage,” in many cases that is exactly what it has become.

It can take months or even years and tens of thousands of dollars to remove an ineffective teacher. The process is so difficult that teachers need not ever fear being removed for mere incompetence. They have to worry only when they break the law or behave so egregiously that officials simply can’t look the other way.

Even then, the process doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to. In 2012, the Los Angeles Unified School District paid off former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who had been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct, including spoon-feeding his semen to children. Berndt was given $40,000 to resign. The school board had decided to fire him, but when he appealed the decision they realized it would be cheaper to pay him to leave rather than go through the process of firing him. That’s an extreme example, but if a teacher can do such unspeakable things and still walk away with a big check from the taxpayers, there is clearly something wrong with the process.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are examples such as Michelle Apperson being laid off after being named “Teacher of the Year” in the Sacramento City Unified School District in 2012 because she did not have seniority.

It shouldn’t require much courage for Brown to take a stand against such outrages. No one in favor of changing teacher tenure laws wants any teacher to face dismissal without a hearing and due process. People realize the importance of protecting the good teachers from wrongfully losing their jobs. But to defend antiquated policies proven not to work and proven to leave ineffective teachers in the classroom for years is unfair to students, their families, and taxpayers.

Heather Kays (hkays@heartland.org) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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