Judge Strikes Down California Teacher Tenure

By Julianne Hing Jun 11, 2014

In a landmark ruling issued Tuesday, a California judge sided with plaintiffs who argued that teacher tenure and due process protections disproportionately hurt poor students and students of color. The closely watched case, funded by Silicon Valley millionaire entrepreneur David Welch’s education reform group Students Matter and brought on behalf of nine California students in five districts, marks a serious defeat for teachers and teacher unions waging a losing war against education reformers who’ve made teachers out to be responsible for enduring educational inequity in the country.

"Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students," Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu wrote in his ruling (PDF), citing a claim that an ineffective teacher costs a classroom $1.4 million in lost earnings over a lifetime. "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience." 

As with everything education, the matter is deeply political. Diane Ravitch, an education historian and vocal critic of the mainstream education reform movement, pointed out that experts who testified in the case are advocates for or are employed by groups that advocate for policies that demand fewer due process rights and more test-based accountability for teachers. 

The ruling was closely watched around the country as a potential model for others who hope to do away with similar teacher protections in their states. The California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers and the state Attorney General’s Office argued in a joint defense that the lawsuit scapegoated teachers for what is at its heart about poverty and neighborhood violence, EdSource reported. 

"We believe the judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric and one of America’s finest corporate law firms that set out to scapegoat teachers for the real problems that exist in public education," CFT president Joshua Pechthalt told the New York Times. "There are real problems in our schools, but this decision in no way helps us move the ball forward."

"The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement hailing the ruling. "Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems."

Treu’s ruling, which charged the state legislature to find alternatives to the five newly unconstitutional policies, goes into effect in 30 days.