A Bonehead Ruling

Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court somehow managed to conclude that teacher tenure prevented bad teachers from being fired in lousy schools where poor and minority students go, and therefore tenure violates students’ civil rights. He is completely wrong.

Poor and minority students can get lousy education for a number of reasons, but the primary ones are that they are systematically under- and unequally funded. We live in the only advanced nation in the world that writes off the education of the poor and minorities by shortchanging them. All others either provide equal funding for every student, or they provide higher funding for disadvantaged students.

Teacher tenure does not violate
students’ civil rights.
Inadequate funding does.

Our system, on the other hand, relies on property taxes for much of our school funding. Since the rich have more property, and the poor have practically none, this generates an automatic inequality of funding that recalls the South’s famously unequal “separate but equal” segregated schools. This unequal funding holds at every level, local, state, and national. Now we have the same segregation and inequality, but instead of changing the laws to address this inequality, the courts are in the process of making it worse, following a misguided campaign funded by Silly Valley tech billionaire David Welch.

The entire effort comes about because of a misguided conservative belief that the private sector is always better, therefore public schools are automatically inferior to privately funded schools. Thus the trend for charter schools managed by private corporations. Unfortunately, they are wrong. There is no evidence that charter schools are either more effective or more financially efficient than public schools. Other factors are at play.

The answer to the whole problem
is to fund every student equally.

There is no question that underfunded schools are bad. How could they be otherwise? Nor is there argument over whether some teachers should be fired forthwith. But the answer to the whole problem is to fund every student equally, as they deserve. That means providing school infrastructure, equipment, and salaries that will attract the best teachers. This is exactly what happens in nations with the highest educational ratings and the greatest respect for teachers.

So how do you get rid of lousy teachers? To begin with, every teachers union spells out the steps to be taken for precisely this process. This is to protect teachers from capricious firing by administrators who sometimes make such decisions based entirely on personal prejudices. (I’ve personally witnessed two such cases.) If teacher tenure is voided, teachers will have no protection from such frivolous treatment.

If teacher tenure is voided,
teachers will have no protection
from prejudicial treatment.

Those ranting about lousy teachers in lousy schools should also stop and question where the superior teachers they demand are going to come from. Teaching in a lousy school is at the bottom of the list of desirability for most teachers. Only the most devoted, or the most desperate, teachers will teach there. There is no pool of top teachers just itching to get these jobs.

There is another point to be made about lousy teachers. There are ineffective teachers whose heart is in the right place, but who, for various reasons, are ineffective. Sometimes that’s because of lousy students, lousy infrastructure, lousy administration. Many of these teachers could be coached and mentored over a year or more, and could learn to be better teachers. 

A number of school systems have had such programs in place for years, and they are effective. They are effective not only at raising the quality of teaching, but in moving inadequate teachers out of the classroom in a manner that punishes neither the teacher nor the students.

Some inadequate teachers can be salvaged
by a wise system of coaching and mentoring.

But this is not going to happen in a system in which the teachers are denigrated as “babysitters”, as some have been labeled, adversaries to be punished and paid as little as possible. In business and the military, when personnel are not successful, management tries to find out why, and to provide a remedy. They do not automatically assume that the people they so carefully hired at great expense are inadequate fools.

We do not charge the schools solely with education of our children. Especially in poor neighborhoods, there are numerous problems the schools are expected to address. There is crime, including the killings that happen more than once a week, inadequate nutrition of poor students, addicted parents who don’t value education, parental abuse, schoolyard bullying, and much more. Teachers and school systems can help with some of these problems, but they can’t solve them all. That’s the duty of society as a whole, which is doing a less than perfect job, and is fought every inch of the way by people who think the ideal government has no funding.

Public schools in the US have been facing numerous problems for decades, but without question most of the problem boils down to not enough money.

Most of the problem
boils down to
not enough money.

Teacher tenure probably needs reform. A teacher should be required to prove his ability before obtaining this protection, which should perhaps take more than the usual two years, and certainly the protection should not be absolute. But the protection will always be needed, even if a miracle should happen and salaries and school funding become equal to the best national systems in the world. Ridding ourselves of teacher tenure might enable us to get rid of a few lousy teachers, but the greater effect would be to shoot ourselves in the foot, making everything worse.

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