Cathy Reisenwitz

Many Democrats are coming around to the reality of the situation, and are standing up for poor and minority students. Politico reports that many high-profile Democrats have broken with the party on education reform agenda items such as charter schools, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation and accountability.

This follows work at the grassroots level from groups like Democrats for Education Reform and The Education Trust, two non-profits which have for years calling for reform to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, and rightly pointed to teacher union obstructionism as a prime reason so many efforts at public education reform have, until recently, gotten nowhere.

Even President Obama supports charters and accountability. His Education Secretary Arne Duncan supported the ruling. “Millions of young people in America … are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students,” Duncan said, calling the ruling “a mandate to fix these problems.”

Rules that protect bad teachers from firing are common across the country, not just in California. According to New York’s school boards association, the average proceeding to remove even one incompetent teacher extends for 830 days and costs taxpayers $313,000. So teachers are far more likely to be moved to failing schools than fired. And these schools tend to be filled with black and Latino kids. The problem entrenches itself as those teachers stay in the system longer, where they are then protected by seniority. Not only does this keep a failing teacher in the classroom, but it makes it impossible for schools to hire new, more effective teachers.

The suit was filed by a group called Students Matter, made up of a group of 9 student plaintiffs, and backed by a Silicon Valley millionaire. They are considering similar lawsuits in Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and elsewhere.

Opposition to teacher tenure is as commonplace as it is common sense. But legislative reform has been nigh-on impossible, thanks to pressure from teachers unions on lawmakers to maintain their legal protections. It’s no surprise, then, that reform has required the courts to get involved.

However, striking down hiring and firing laws will likely improve California’s public education system by flushing out poor-quality teachers and making room for better ones. This will likely energize Democratic families frustrated by failing schools to demand action from their legislators. Then lawmakers will have to choose: Help struggling families get the same quality public education as their better-off peers, or continue protecting teachers unions from competition and accountability? It’s an uneviable position, born from a disgusting history of pandering to and prioritizing labor at the expense of society’s most vulnerable. Let’s hope they do the right thing.

Cathy Reisenwitz

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