Cathy Reisenwitz

Five teacher hiring and firing laws bit the dust in California this week. In a major blow to teachers unions, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu’s ruling struck down teacher tenure, while freeing districts from spending hundreds of thousands to fire teachers and from having to fire newly-hired teachers first during layoffs.

The ruling is being applauded as a major civil rights victory, with Judge Treu comparing it with historic desegregation battle Brown v. Board of Education. Treu said both cases addressed “a student’s fundamental right to equality of the educational experience.” The data could not be clearer that the union-controlled public education monopoly disproportionately harms black and Latino students. But legal pushback on the issue puts the Democratic party in a tight spot. Party leaders can continue ignoring or thwarting reform efforts aimed at ensuring every child has access to a quality education. Or, they can jump on board the fight for equality, and alienate the teachers unions, historically among their most powerful allies. More and more Democrats are choosing the latter, putting them on the right side of history, but the wrong side of a very powerful lobby.

In his ruling Judge Treu described the evidence that California’s teacher hiring and firing laws harm poor and minority students “compelling.”

“Indeed, it shocks the conscience,” Treu wrote. At the trial, experts testified that teacher tenure laws, along with “first in, last out” protections for senior educators keep bad teachers in their jobs. And, unsurprisingly, districts usually place failing teachers in predominantly black and Hispanic schools. California’s black students are 43 percent more likely than whites to be taught by a failing teacher. Latino students are 68 percent more likely. Judge Treu ruled that this situation violates those students’ constitutional right to an equal education.

Getting stuck with even one bad teacher has devastating consequences going forward. Harvard Prof. Thomas Kane testified at the trial. He pointed out that a student assigned to a grossly ineffective math teacher loses nearly a full year of learning per year compared to a student assigned to a teacher of average effectiveness. Harvard Prof. Raj Chetty testified as well, showing research that a student with a grossly ineffective teacher for even one year loses $50,000 in lifetime earnings compared to a student assigned to an average teacher.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is a Young Voices Associate and a D.C.-based writer and political commentator.