Brian Jones, a former New York City public school teacher, is the Green Party's candidate for lieutenant governor of New York. He blogs at "No Struggle, No Progress." He is on Twitter.
UPDATED JUNE 12, 2014, 12:55 PM
America is the land of misdirected anger. This time, teachers in California are on the receiving end.
That is not to say that public school parents in the state shouldn't be angry. In the last decade, billions have been cut from California’s K-12 budget. A public school system that used to be the envy of the nation has been starved to death. Budget cuts have meant canceled after-school and summer programs. It has meant rising student-teacher ratios, and in some Los Angeles classrooms, for example, overcrowding that has forced students to find seats atop file cabinets.
Now, thanks to the super-sized bank account of Silicon Valley mogul David Welch, who founded the parent group behind the Vergara case and funded the legal team, the court has come to see that students’ rights were not violated by overcrowded classes or budget cuts, but by the rights afforded to the teachers.
The court is wrong — and so is Welch. If teacher tenure is an important obstacle to achievement, Mississippi (with no teacher tenure) should have stellar schools and Massachusetts (with teacher tenure) should have failing ones. Instead, it’s the other way around. Correlation is not causation, of course, but across the country the states without tenure are at the bottom of performance rankings. States with the highest-achieving public schools have tenure (and teacher unions).
K-12 teachers with tenure do not have a job for life. What “tenure” means, for them, is due-process procedures for dismissals with cause, instead of capricious or at-will dismissal from their duties. I've spoken to countless teachers from Southern states who are afraid to do the things that New York City teachers do all the time – write blogs, write letters to the editor, even show up to a rally – because they could lose their jobs for speaking out. All working people should have such protections.
If anything, teacher tenure laws need to be strengthened because the country is bleeding teachers — especially in large urban districts. Between 40 and 50 percent of teachers nationwide leave the job within five years. If 40 percent of all doctors or lawyers quit within five years, I’m guessing we wouldn’t be asking why they have it so good. We certainly wouldn’t be trying to figure out what we can do to make their terms of employment less favorable.
Can we do a better job of training and developing teachers? Sure, but removing tenure doesn’t do anything to get us closer to that goal. In the meantime, teachers’ rights are a convenient scapegoat.
It goes something like this: Angry at the conditions in your local public school? Don’t ask how they got that way. Don’t ask who set the budget priorities. Don’t ask who is in charge of hiring teachers and guiding their development. Don’t ask who’s in charge of making sure the conditions of school are optimal for teaching and for learning. Whatever you do, do not look at the million-dollar man behind the curtain of the lawsuit.
Just blame the teacher.