But is Arne Duncan Going To Do Anything About Tenure Reform?

Hughey Newsome Advisory Council, Project 21
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It’s hard to find truer words than those of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu.

In ruling that California’s teacher tenure laws were unconstitutional, Judge Treu stated such laws caused “the potential and/or unreasonable exposure of grossly ineffective teachers to all California students in general and to minority and/or low-income students in particular.”

The case, Vergara v. California, brought by students who felt shortchanged by pro-teacher tenure protections, is being hailed as a modern-day Brown v. Board of Education because of its sweeping potential.

In all but three states and Washington, D.C., teachers in government-run schools are protected by the virtual career-long job security of tenure. In California, teachers gain tenure after just two years of service. According to the Wall Street Journal, only 91 California teachers were fired in the past decade, and only 19 were fired for poor performance. Yet an expert witness testified of possibly 8,250 California teachers who rank as grossly ineffective.

To put tenure in perspective, less than 0.002 percent of California teachers are dismissed for unprofessional conduct or poor performance in any given year as compared to one percent for other California public employees and eight percent of workers in private businesses.

Tenure also favors seniority over merit, forcing “last in-first out” layoffs that can hurt classrooms with good, but young, teachers. Judge Treu wrote “both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one) disadvantaged by the current [tenure] statute.”

Almost immediately, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cheered the ruling, saying it offered “a mandate” to build “a new framework for the teaching profession.” Duncan added: “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.

Here is where the irony begins. Duncan clearly supports the Vergara ruling. Moreover, he demonstrates that he believes existing teacher tenure laws make accountability more difficult — which can hurt good teachers and takes away incentives for improvement. He also appears to align himself with Judge Treu in that minority students are hurt most by unchecked tenure protections.

Unfortunately, Duncan’s comments lack specific actions he believes that he, as the Obama administration’s point man on education, could or would take to rectify a problem he admits exists nationwide. How can the U.S. Department of Education help alleviate the disparate impact of teacher tenure on teaching?

More importantly, how can the Obama administration do this when that the teachers unions consider tenure a non-negotiable issue and are expected to appeal Judge Treu’s ruling?

Of course, teacher tenure laws are the product of states. States are primarily responsible for education, and the federal government only has a limited capability that conservatives have long argued is better left to the individual states and localities.

But, in 2009, the National Governors Association convened to develop a set of standards in education. The result, the so-called Common Core, was promoted by an aggressive federal program called “Race to the Top.” It gave states incentives for hasty implementation of Common Core standards.

Race to the Top was begun by Arne Duncan. Back then, Duncan put his money where his mouth was.

Fast forward five years, and controversy over Common Core has grown. In 2009, 44 of the 50 states (along with the District of Columbia) fully adopted Common Core standards.  Since then, two states have repealed them altogether and another ten considered legislation to either defund or withdraw full adoption. No states that originally declined to adopt Common Core reversed course.

Since then, the U.S. Department of Education seems far less aggressive in pursuing significant changes in public K-12 education. This is unfortunate, as Duncan has so resoundingly shown he believes school districts should be switching from seniority-driven rewards systems to meritocracies.

Despite making speeches and giving professionally prepared statements, things do not usually get done until you put your money where your mouth is.

Duncan needs to do more than pay lip service to tenure reform.