Even before a California court ruling on teacher tenure rocked the education world last week, a group of Buffalo parents were talking about a similar lawsuit.
The parents met earlier this month with a New York City education group closely tracking the California case, said parent organizer Sam Radford. When the judge ruled that California tenure laws deprive students of their right to education, it gave a boost to those parents in Buffalo and across the state considering a challenge to New York’s tenure laws.
“That’s not a problem just in California,” Radford said of tenure protections. “That’s a problem at urban school districts all across the country.”
The California judge ruled that the state’s tenure laws disproportionately affected poor and minority students by making it too difficult to remove “grossly ineffective” teachers.
Education reformers and union activists combed through the 16-page decision last week for clues on whether it would usher in similar lawsuits in other states.
As the decision winds its way through the California appeal process, some wonder: Will it prompt sweeping changes to long-standing due process protections for veteran teachers in other states?
Those that study the role of courts in education reform say it’s too early to tell, but that significant differences between the California tenure system and laws in New York State will pose a challenge for parents hoping to bring a similar lawsuit in New York.
“The situations are very different,” said Michael A. Rebell, a professor of law and education practice at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “Even if the California Supreme Court were to uphold the constitutional position, somebody bringing a similar case in New York would have to deal with a very different set of facts.”
In California, for example, teacher tenure decisions are made after only 18 months on the job, compared to three years in New York and 31 other states. California, the judge noted, is one of only five states that grant tenure to teachers within their first two years on the job.
That time frame means that, in some cases in California, teachers could be granted tenure before they are fully credentialed, California Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu noted.
The California Teachers Association will appeal Treu’s ruling, and Rebell said that process could take a year or two before it is decided in California’s top court.
“I think it’s quite premature to assume that, first of all, that the California case is a valid precedent,” Rebell said. “Because it’s going up on appeal and this was a very quick and not very extensively developed legal opinion.”
New York’s top court, meanwhile, “is very cautious in confronting legislative policy judgments,” Rebell said.
“They emphasize the importance of courts deferring to the policy judgments of a legislature,” Rebell said.
Bedrock of tenure
Teacher tenure in New York has been part of the bedrock of the state’s educational system for decades. Designed to protect veteran teachers from arbitrary firings, it sets out a hearing process by which teachers charged with misconduct or incompetency can have their cases heard by a panel of arbitrators.
Administrators who grant tenure say they take great care in reviewing the record of teachers before granting permanent job status.
“I have a saying that I think about when I make a decision to recommend candidates to the Board of Education for tenure,” Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff recently told a group of newly tenured teachers in his district. “And that is, does the person’s performance make you want to stand up and get out of your seat and cheer?”
But critics of the teacher tenure system say it has created a hearing process that makes it too difficult and costly to remove poorly performing teachers
“A teacher should feel free to teach and use their own process without fear of political reprisals, but I don’t think it should go to the opposite extreme either,” Radford said, “where you get job security no matter how good or bad you are.”
New York State’s tenure system has undergone changes in recent years.
A 2008 report by the New York State School Board Association found that it took an average of 520 days and $128,000 to complete the state hearing process to remove a tenured teacher. Since then, New York lawmakers have attempted to require hearings to conclude within a certain time frame. They’ve also created an expedited process by which school districts can seek to remove a teacher who is rated “ineffective” two years in a row under the new teacher evaluation system.
“All the district has to do is make a case that the teacher is incompetent,” said Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. “Everybody keeps thinking that with tenure, you can’t get rid of poorly performing teachers. That’s simply not true.”
Few teachers fired
But removal of a tenured teacher through the state’s hearing process is rare.
Across the state, 65 teachers have been fired through the hearing process since new tenure rules took effect in April 2012, according to the state Education Department. But both the New York State United Teachers and the state Education Department note that many cases are resolved through settlement before a hearing is finished. Poorly performing teachers are also “counseled out” of the profession before their cases reach the formal disciplinary stage, Rumore said.
The state’s public school laws for tenured teachers also differ greatly from the way teacher protections are handled in area charter schools. At the Charter School for Applied Technologies, for example, teachers work under renewable contracts for seven years before they reach a point where they receive a higher level of job protection in which they must meet certain performance standards.
“That’s much more similar to how the rest of the world works,” said Superintendent Efrain Martinez. “In other words, job safety is not about iron-clad job security, and it is tied to performance.”
New York State United Teachers President Karen E. Magee lambasted the California court ruling on tenure as an assault on teachers unions that was largely funded by “millionaires, their PR firms and front-groups.” The California lawsuit, brought by nine public school students, was spearheaded by Students Matter, a group founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Welch.
“This case will be appealed and NYSUT is optimistic more evenhanded judges will overturn this meritless decision,” Magee said in a written statement.
While no one knows yet whether the California ruling will have a nationwide impact, one thing is clear: People are talking again about tenure in New York.
“It’s hopefully going to raise these conversations and make everyone think a little harder about why does tenure exist,” said Jason Zwara, executive director of the advocacy group Buffalo ReformEd. “What purpose does it serve, and is it actually serving those purposes? Or has it just become a guaranteed lifetime position?”