California case sheds light on why teacher tenure is bad for students

Greg R. Lawson Jul 25, 2014

“Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” 

So said California state judge Rolf Treu in deciding Vergara v. California. The decision, issued in June, held that California’s teacher tenure, dismissal, and lay-off procedure laws were unconstitutional under the state’s constitution. Although California boasts some of the worst tenure laws in the nation, the fundamental issues of teacher tenure, dismissals, and “last in first out” lay-off policies transcend state lines.

Like California, Ohio has laws that establish tenure for public school teachers and provide procedures for dismissing teachers and reducing staff. Unfortunately, these procedures often mean that teacher quality takes a back seat to teacher seniority under Ohio law.

In Ohio, a teacher may qualify for tenure, known as a “continuing contract,” seven years after obtaining a teaching license. Once an Ohio teacher holds a continuing contract he may not be permanently removed from the classroom unless he voluntarily resigns or is “terminated.” Termination, however, may only occur for “good and just cause,” or for extreme behavior as specified by statute (e.g., “willfully retain[ing] membership in an organization that advocates the overthrow of the government . . . by force, violence or other unlawful means.”). In either case, the school board trying to remove a tenured teacher must follow procedures set out in state law, which include a formal hearing in front of a referee and a potential appeal to a court of common pleas. Not surprisingly, cases involving termination for “just cause” typically trigger a string of legal challenges, arbitration hearings, and court battles—making termination a costly and onerous step for school boards to take.

Furthermore, Ohio’s tenured public school teachers also receive preferential treatment during staff layoffs. Although not a strict requirement for a “last in, first out” system, Ohio law effectively ensures that the youngest and newest teachers will be furloughed first, and any tenured teachers will be reinstated before any non-tenured teachers return if the layoffs are rescinded.

Only Cleveland enjoys reprieve and exemption from some of these failed tenure policies. Under H.B. 525, known more commonly as the “Cleveland Plan,” the Cleveland Municipal School District may legally “terminate” or remove tenured teachers for “poor performance.” Fortunately for parents and children in Cleveland, the law considers “poor performance,” defined as two consecutive ratings of “ineffective,” to be “good and just cause” for removal. Imagine that—a school board able to fire a teacher for being ineffective.

Similarly, under the Cleveland Plan, the Cleveland school district may layoff ineffective tenured teachers before laying-off effective, high-performing non-tenured teachers. Regrettably, students in the rest of the state are not as lucky and must continue to languish under sub-par tutelage because of the state’s backward tenure and dismissal provisions.

But the Cleveland Plan and the decision in Vergara offer hope. Teacher tenure laws too often protect “grossly ineffective teachers.” The time has come to acknowledge that students and teachers would be better served by public school systems that elevate teacher quality over teacher seniority.