Last Updated on March 17, 2021 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney for Students since 1995
This week, Judge Rolf M. Treu, Superior Court of California, in Vergara v. State of California (2014) determined that our teacher tenure, seniority and dismissal laws (California Education Code 44921(b), 44934, 44938(b)(1) 44944, and 44955 ) are unconstitutional as they breach California students’ rights to a quality education. You may be saying- ho hum who cares, so I will attempt to explain the very BIG DEAL this case is.
First, I don’t know about you, but since birth I have heard that teachers are measly low paid workers who barely scrape by. This urban myth is false. Teachers work approximately 9 months a year, yet get paid very favorable salaries. Per the California Department of Education “Average Salaries & Expenditures Percentage” publication, teacher salaries in 2011-2012 ranged from: $38,390-$42,865 for a beginning teacher fresh out of college. For a longer term teacher, salaries range from $70,797-$89,290. When you factor in that teachers work only an average of 9 months a year, teachers’ real pay becomes evident. Taking the amounts above and dividing them by 9 months, the “real” annual wage may be factored:
Beginning teacher wage/nine months = $4265.55-$4762.77/month
Yearly (12 months) this is: $51,186.60- $57,153.24/year actual wages
Higher level teacher wage/nine months = $7866.33-$9921.11/month
Yearly (12 months) this is: $94,395.96- $119,053.33/year actual wages
Now, I know some will scoff and say “I work 9.5 months a year,” or “Your math is all wrong.” Nine months is a “best guess” factoring in winter break (2 weeks) spring break (1 week), President’s Day break (1 week), summer break (2 months+), and all other school holidays. If teachers get these off, they work about 3/4 of the year or 9 months while the rest of us trudge along roughly for just under 11.5 months (presuming 2 weeks off+). As far as the hours they put in, I don’t see that they squeeze 11.5 months worth of hours into 9 months time. Rather, I see teachers leave meetings early as they are “not contracted for the meeting time.” If a teacher is told they have to stay, they seem to be paid extra, above and beyond their regular salary.
Additionally, teachers reportedly receive some of the best benefits around for health, retirement and otherwise. Kudos to their unions, which are some of the most powerful in the nation.
With the cherries on top of teacher tenure (you get a permanent job after two years of work), first in last out laws (seniority), and the difficult dismissal procedures (heightened/much more complex/expensive than “normal” government employees), once a teacher is “in” a district, they are IN, maybe for life, irregardless of work performance.
Now, if they were all doing a great job, tenure would not be an issue, but California schools are some of the worst in the United States, and teachers are at the heart of the mess our schools have become. As Judge Treu states:
All sides … agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience. All sides also agree that grossly ineffective teachers substantially undermine the ability of that child to succeed in school. (page 7)
In Vergara (page 8), Judge Treu reports that there are estimated to be 2,750-8,250 “grossly ineffective” teachers in California schools, thrust for the most part on low income areas and minority students (page 15). With the seniority rules and special termination procedures for teachers, however, the removal process is described as taking from 2-10 years at a cost potentially up to $450,000+ taxpayer dollars (page 11). Most districts forgo the dismissal process as a result. This means the bad teachers stay and students pay the price.
Time and time again I meet with parents who get stuck with one of these grossly incompetent teachers. The teacher is checked out, can’t teach well, or berates and criticizes the kids incessantly. But, despite years of issues, complaints, etc. the school district can’t get rid of this teacher because they are “tenured.” Now, the 400th discarded kid ends up in this teacher’s class as the school has no other choice and it is hellish. The child’s parents are at their wits end and ultimately, the child wastes their time, learns nothing, and you and I (the taxpayers) are paying for it. Vergara cites an almost 10 month loss of education when a student is placed with a grossly ineffective teacher (page 8).
The big deal here is that teachers basically get a permanent job no matter how well or how poorly they teach. If you have ever seen the fabulous documentary “Waiting for Superman,” you will remember the scene with the room full of teachers, removed from the classroom, yet who could not be fired. Rather than subject students to them, the school district paid them their full salary while they sat in a room and twiddled their thumbs day after day. At taxpayers expense. It was cheaper to keep them there than try to fire them. Why should schools have to do this? Heightened due process when firing teachers (e.g. just because they are teachers) should not apply.
I am very happy about the decision this week to end teacher tenure, seniority and heightened termination laws, while also being very nervous the decision will be overturned on appeal. I hope Vergara stands, as how California goes, so goes the rest of the United States. It’s about time we took A HUGE HURDLE out of our kids’ way so they can have a chance at their education. I applaud Judge Treu for turning teachers into something they never were: employees who can be terminated if they do a bad job just like the rest of us. Now parent personnel complaints may just be acted upon properly, for the benefit of the people the school system was set up to help: our kids.
Education Attorney for Students
LAW OFFICE OF MICHELLE BALL
717 K Street, Suite 228
Sacramento, CA 95814
Please see my disclaimer. This is legal information, not legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is formed by this posting. This blog may not be reproduced without permission from the author and proper attribution of authorship. This blog may not reflect the current state of the law.