Wow: California judge strikes down tenure for public-school teachers as violating students' right to quality education

I’m too much of a pessimist to believe this’ll stand on appeal and too much of a conservative not to be uneasy about constitutionalizing a new element of public policy, but let’s toast to the idea that the welfare of public-school students is more important than job security for public-school teachers.

They’ve been waiting for Superman, and now here he is. Momentous:

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprive students of their constitutional right to an education, a decision that hands teachers’ unions a major defeat in a landmark case that overturns several California laws that govern the way teachers are hired and fired.

“Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” Judge Rolf M. Treu wrote in the ruling. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”…

The plaintiffs argued that California’s current laws made it impossible to get rid of low-performing and incompetent teachers, who were disproportionately assigned to schools filled with poor students. The result, they insisted, amounted to a violation of students’ constitutional rights to an education.

Campbell Brown wrote a piece for the Daily Beast a few weeks ago that summarizes the case. Nine public-school students sued the state for sticking them with crappy teachers, who, under California law, are eligible for lifetime tenure after just 18 months in the classroom. Once they’ve got tenure, it’s next to impossible to get rid of them — firing them for cause is a long, laborious process, and the longer they’re on the job, the harder it is to lay them off even for budgetary reasons. You know how this story goes. Question for the court: Whose rights trump? The teachers’ rights not to be fired without due process, as due process is defined under the tenure law, or the students’ rights to an education of the same basic quality as all public-school students are supposed to have? (The poorest schools, which tend to have more minority students, also tend to get the worst teachers.) Just to sweeten the pot, the students presented economic evidence that bad teachers can cost them tens of thousands of dollars — potentially more than a million per classroom — in future income by setting back their education.

Held: The students come first. The opinion’s just 16 pages, in case you’re eager to skim, but here’s a key bit from the end:


The right to an equal education stems from California’s state constitution, not the U.S. Constitution, in case you’re wondering whether this decision might make its way up the food chain to the Supremes. The logic is easily replicable, though, by other state courts: So long as your state charter has a right to equal protection, which they all do, and some language suggesting a right to an education, union-drafted statutory bars to dismissing incompetent public-school teachers are in jeopardy. The peril lurking here is that the more you make education policy a creature of constitutional rules rather than statutory ones, the more you shift control over schools (and their budgets) to courts rather than the legislature. E.g., why couldn’t a left-leaning judge seize on this as precedent for requiring equal funding of all schools in California, irrespective of need, in the name of equal protection? On the other hand, the whole point of this decision is to make ossified law like the tenure rules more flexible for administrators, which is basically the opposite of how constitutional rulings tend to work. Instead of freezing a law in place, it’s melting the ice, a la a bankruptcy ruling that liquidates toxic contracts.

A lefty pal flags another part of the opinion:

Right, that’s part of it. Minority students are being burdened with the worst teachers; distribute them more equitably throughout the system and teacher quality will improve in the worst schools even if no one gets fired. But … why distribute them at all? Can them straightaway and bring in better teachers and the system as a whole will improve. Equality is good, more quality is even better.