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A Turning Point in the Battle to Rescue Public Education?

The battle over public education was never quite the same after the New Yorker published a deep dive into New York’s “rubber rooms” in 2009. These were rooms in which hundreds of teachers accused of misconduct–which could mean physically abusing or molesting students–spent their days, instead of working, while still reaping their salaries and benefits. They couldn’t be let near kids. But they still couldn’t be fired. Here was a key paragraph early on:

The teachers have been in the Rubber Room for an average of about three years, doing the same thing every day—which is pretty much nothing at all. Watched over by two private security guards and two city Department of Education supervisors, they punch a time clock for the same hours that they would have kept at school—typically, eight-fifteen to three-fifteen. Like all teachers, they have the summer off. The city’s contract with their union, the United Federation of Teachers, requires that charges against them be heard by an arbitrator, and until the charges are resolved—the process is often endless—they will continue to draw their salaries and accrue pensions and other benefits.

There have been other milestones in education reform and specifically with regard to the unions, but if you want to know just why Republicans in blue states like Chris Christie and Scott Walker had success reining in the unions, the unjust and expensive unaccountability captured in situations like the “rubber rooms” generally sits atop the list. Reforms have tackled the pay and benefits structure, however. Now there may be another turning point, in a milestone court ruling out in California. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a closely watched court case that challenged California’s strong teacher employment protections, a group of nine students have prevailed against the state and its two largest teachers’ unions.

A California Superior Court on Tuesday found that all the state laws challenged in the case were unconstitutional. The verdict that could fuel similar lawsuits in other states where legislative efforts have failed to ease rules for the dismissal of teachers considered ineffective.

The student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California argued that the statutes protecting teachers’ jobs serve more often to keep poor instructors in the schools—hurting students’ chances to succeed. The teachers’ unions said state laws didn’t preclude school districts from making their own hiring and firing decisions.

Among the laws challenged in the case was California’s “Last-In, First-Out” layoff statute, which requires layoffs based on seniority rather than classroom performance. Also challenged were complex dismissal statutes for ineffective teachers that plaintiffs described as costly, burdensome and involving “a borderline infinite number of steps.”

If the California case were unique, this would be a local victory. As the “rubber rooms” illustrate, it isn’t. In New Jersey, for instance, the process for firing a teacher is essentially rigged against the district, with time delays and the costs of attorney’s fees and the teacher’s salary on top of a replacement instructor for the duration of the process, with no guarantee the teacher can be fired at the end of it. As a result, even attempting to fire a teacher becomes an arduous, and usually avoided, course of action. In Wisconsin, union privileges meant teachers were indeed fired–good teachers, and young teachers, so that those with seniority could keep their generous benefits and job security.

New Jersey and Wisconsin are not alone either, but they illustrate why there was public support for getting union privileges under some control even in liberal states: the policies are so clearly rigged against the students. In California, the students bringing the court challenge argued–correctly–that the policies were exceedingly harmful to the students. The purpose of education is to benefit the students, and government schools were failing miserably.

I’ve written about this before: the students suffer because bad teachers can’t be fired and budget cuts can’t touch what’s been granted the unions in their collective bargaining agreements, so the students lose out on books, educational technology, tutoring, library facilities, after-school activities, and anything else the unions can pick clean off the carcass of public education.

The problem was that the process by which those contracts were won was in essence corrupt. Politicians seeking union backing (usually liberal Democrats) promise taxpayer money for it, some of which is then spent on getting such politicians reelected. It’s a cycle that leaves the taxpayers–you know, those footing the bill–and the students without an advocate.

Yet the system is not so easy to reform. After all, contracts are contracts. And the same politicians in thrall to the unions obviously cannot be relied on to legislate some relief. The California case may provide a way out of this conundrum: the courts. As the Journal notes:

Research has pointed to teacher quality as the biggest in-school determinant for student performance. In recent years, many states have moved to simplify dismissal procedures for ineffective teachers and to encourage districts to consider teacher performance in layoff decisions rather than relying solely on seniority.

Efforts in California failed in the legislature, so students and their advocates took the case to court—a novel way to test the long-standing state policies.

A novel way, perhaps, but one that provides a glimmer of hope for students. It shouldn’t have been necessary to come to this point, but now that it has American public education may take another step toward once again fulfilling its mission.



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