Many Democrats Prioritizing Black Families Over Teachers Unions

Cathy Reisenwitz

6/16/2014 12:01:00 AM - 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.

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.