Teachers unions—already experiencing a drop in membership and public sentiment— took another large blow last week when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu struck down five California laws that govern the hiring and firing of teachers. The decision, Vergara v. State of California, will significantly diminish the influence of unions over personnel decisions and empower principals and school leaders with the ability to keep the most effective teachers in their classroom and dismiss ineffective teachers.
In his 16-page opinion, Treu compared Vergara to landmark cases that defined educational equality, such as Brown v. Board of Education. “While these cases addressed the issue of lack of equality of education based on the discrete facts raised therein, here this Court is directly faced with issues that compel it to apply these constitutional principles to the quality of the educational experience,” Treu wrote.
According to Heritage senior legal policy analyst Elizabeth Slattery, Treu’s opinion “held that a disparity in the quality of education violates students’ right to equality because “grossly ineffective teachers” have a “real and appreciable” impact on the students. Further, the tenure laws disproportionately burden low-income and minority students.”
According to the California Department of Education, “the most vulnerable students, those attending high-poverty, low-performing schools, are far more likely than their wealthier peers to attend schools having a disproportionate number of under qualified, inexperienced, out-of-field, and ineffective teachers and administrators.”
Policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom can have a profound impact on children’s futures. According to a 2012 study by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff, one year in a classroom with a highly ineffective teacher costs a classroom of students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings.
Teachers unions have long been criticized for supporting policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom. And that support is costing them in the view of the public. According to a poll conducted by professional journal EducationNext, 43 percent of Americans view teachers unions negatively.
It also may be costing them members. The membership of the nation’s largest unions is declining—the National Education Association has lost more than 230,000 members in the last three years and is projecting a further decline. As Politico reporter Stephanie Simon wrote:
“As the two big national teachers unions prepare for their conventions this summer, they are struggling to navigate one of the most tumultuous moments in their history… [U]nions are contending with falling revenue and declining membership, damaging court cases, the defection of once-loyal Democratic allies.”
For most school districts across the country, teacher compensation is determined by the time spent in the classroom, paper certifications, and other input-based measures that often fail to reflect the impact of teachers on student learning outcomes.
But recently, states such as North Carolina, and even individual school districts such as Douglas County in Colo., have reformed their teacher compensation laws to reward educators based on merit instead of time spent in the classroom.
Empowering principals to make personnel decisions —to have the ability to dismiss ineffective teachers and award teachers who are effective and contribute to the educational attainment of children – can have positive benefits for student learning. As both Brown and Vergara have written,
“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” (Emphasis in Vergara)
In the spirit of equal opportunity in the quality of education a child receives, the Vergara decision breaks down barriers, erected largely by teachers unions that have stood in the way of attracting and retaining quality teachers in California.