Latest News

Bruce Maiman: A cautionary tale for those applauding teacher tenure ruling

This story has two components – one many would like to see eliminated, the other a warning of what might happen if we do.

Last month, when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in Vergara v. California that the state’s teacher tenure laws were unconstitutional, I stumbled across a story from which the city of Davis is still recovering.

Despite coach of the year honors and enormous success, Julie Crawford’s volleyball coaching contracts at Davis High were not renewed – first in June 2013 for the girls’ team, then in February for the boys. Why? The general consensus of everyone I interviewed, and in accounts by the Davis Enterprise and the online Davis Vanguard, is that Crawford cut a player from the girls’ team, the player’s mother resented it and – using her seat on the school board – engineered Crawford’s firing.

“I was right in the middle of it,” said now-retired longtime Davis High football coach Dave Whitmire. “Coach Crawford was harassed and bullied for two years, and the school board failed to address the issue.”

Vanguard director David Greenwald told me Crawford had an animus toward the mom – any coach might after two years of helicopter-parent badgering. But he said, “To me, this was always about an elected official using power to carry out a personal vendetta.”

Fortunately for Crawford, her contracts were renewed within weeks of each dismissal as the community twice rallied behind her. The mother, Nancy Peterson, resigned from the school board in disgrace in March.

Coaching jobs in California schools are “at will” positions, annually renewed via a verbal service agreement. You can be fired at any time, often without explanation. But if tenure is weakened or eliminated due to the Vergara decision, what’s to stop any influential parent or powerful organization from getting teachers fired for similarly personal or political reasons?

Indeed, an advocacy group brought the Vergara suit – Students Matter, founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and charter school advocate David Welch. He has virtually no background in education policy, and he had to recruit nine children, primarily from low-income communities, to say they had “grossly ineffective teachers.”

Attorneys for the defendants checked the records of those educators and in a post-trial brief noted that teachers for four of the plaintiffs, including sisters Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, taught at charter and pilot schools where teachers can be dismissed for any reason. Another plaintiff’s teacher, Christine McLaughlin, was Pasadena teacher of the year and has repeatedly been recognized for teaching excellence.

One wonders if, as with the Davis controversy, this was a matter of people lashing out at teachers they simply didn’t like.

Greenwald told of a college friend at Gunn High School in Palo Alto who was denied tenure, he believes, because he was a conservative Christian. Recently in Vermont, when asked why a teacher was being fired, the school board president replied “rumors in the community.” Turns out her brother didn’t like the teacher. Vermont has no tenure; the teacher had to get another job.

Tenure provides additional protections, said Lori Jablonski, a 14-year teacher at McClatchy High in Sacramento. “During a past administration, two teachers raised concerns over a plan supported by the principal to allow grade recovery for athletic eligibility. They worried it would violate state rules. They were pressured from all sides to shut their mouths, but they didn’t back down because they had tenure and didn’t have to worry about being fired the next day.” The proposal, incidentally, was dropped.

Now don’t cry-baby me with, “I don’t have that job security. Why should teachers?” A tenured McClatchy PE teacher who defended himself from a student’s assault continues fighting to get his job back. Despite his being exonerated by an independent panel and a judge, “the district is still trying to keep him from returning,” Jablonski said. “No one knows why, and it’s cost who knows how much money.” It suggests that tenure’s problem isn’t just bad teachers, but bad administrators.

And if you think districts fear firing teachers over costly tenure appeals, without tenure, picture districts fearful of firing teachers to avoid wrongful-termination lawsuits.

“There would be lawsuits coming from all directions,” Jablonksi said.

Out of 275,000 teachers in California, absolutely some are “grossly ineffective,” and teachers’ unions should support their dismissal. Frankly, the unions’ all-or-nothing protection of current tenure standards may have invigorated the charter school movement more than privatization proponents ever could. Had union leaders been more conciliatory, does anyone believe we’d now have a lawsuit quite possibly headed to the state Supreme Court?

California adopted tenure in 1921. Today’s world is different. A comprehensive review is a good idea. But for those wanting to abolish tenure altogether? Be careful what your wish for.