California's Teacher Tenure System Was Ruled Unconstitutional, But This Might Just Backfire

On Tuesday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a ruling that sent tremors through America's educational system. Based on evidence that indicated one to three percent of the state's teachers are “grossly ineffective” — and that this disproportionately affects students from low-income families — the judge ruled that California's teacher tenure system was unconstitutional.

Why The Ruling Seems To Make Sense

Now, there's no doubt that the tenure system is faulty at best. For one thing, research has shown that 18 months (which is how long it takes for teachers to become eligible for tenure in California) is just too short a time-frame for evaluating teachers — in fact, one study by the University of Washington found even the first three years of teaching don't necessarily predict the quality of post-tenure work. And though theoretically tenure should be granted only to those who perform well, often it's just a matter of sticking around for long enough.

On top of that, tenure can lead to complacency in the workplace; the low risk of being fired means less effort is necessary. No wonder a 2012 survey found that the average educator thinks it makes sense to work 5.4 years before being evaluated for tenure. No wonder a whopping 91 percent of school board presidents think that tenure system gets in the way of firing poorer-quality teachers.

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The Ruling's Unforeseen Consequences

That said, there's a severe teacher shortage in California. Roughly 11 percent of the teacher workforce was fired between 2007 and 2011 because of the severe budget cuts that hit the state's schools. Intense competition for the remaining positions ensued and students considering becoming teachers got scared — the result was a drastic drop in the enrollments at teacher credential programs. According to San Jose Mercury News, in California, enrollment in these programs dropped by a staggering 50 percent between 2001 and 2013.

The issue, then, is that the job security offered by tenure (and its related benefits) is a major incentive for people considering a career in teaching. In this age of tentative employment and faltering economy, stability is a major incentive, Getting rid of that could mean that people who might have chosen to become a teacher dismiss the option entirely — why settle for the high stress and low pay without the perks? Getting rid of tenure in order to more easily fire under-performing teachers could mean that the pool of potential teachers gets significantly smaller.

Moreover, often, the salary system works based on amount of years spent teaching — so teachers who have been working at a school for longer will be paid significantly more than a teacher that's starting out. With tenure, that's not an issue, but bring in the possibility of firing the more experienced — and therefore more expensive — teachers, and hiring newer, cheaper teachers, and suddenly you've got an easy way to cost-cut. The system is messed up, for sure. But it's messed up because of underfunding, overcrowding and a lack of quality teachers — especially those willing to work in the poorer neighborhoods. Wednesday's ruling doesn't really solve any of these problems, but maybe it'll jumpstart a more serious conversation about them.