The Power Struggle Behind the Teacher Tenure Lawsuit

Kitty Kelly Epstein


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The Los Angeles court decision against teacher tenure laws has something in common with No Child Left Behind. The Bush administration rolled out NCLB with pretty slogans about helping poor children. In the end, the law enriched testing companies and left more children behind.


The L.A. court decision striking down California teacher tenure laws was financed by the foundation of Silicon Valley millionaire, David Welch, who argued that the laws harm children. If allowed to stand, the court decision, like NCLB, is likely to hurt both students and teachers in two ways. First, it does nothing about the real issues of teacher availability and support. And second, its actual impact has more to do with political power than education.


There is a large and growing shortage of long term, highly dedicated teachers in the U.S., especially in schools attended by children without money. That teacher shortage is caused by two factors, neither of them having anything to do with tenure. First, the set of bureaucratic procedures, tests, and financial burdens required of prospective teachers, do not predict good teaching and prevent community people who want to teach from getting the credential that allows them into the profession.


Second, half the people who do manage to get a credential leave the profession in less than five years. The speed of exit has increased as standardized testing has overwhelmed U.S. classrooms and a wrong-headed critique of teachers has derailed the on-going project of making schools into loving, safe, stimulating places where young people want to be.


Even if ending tenure laws were actually designed to get rid of bad teachers, it would not create any new teachers to fill up the classrooms so rapidly vacated in urban schools. In fact, it is likely to make teaching an even less appealing profession.


But this issue is fundamentally about power. The general attack on teachers and teacher unions has little to do with education and more to do with the tussle for overwhelming political power being carried out by the wealthiest few among us.


Teachers are one of the most solid, progressive forces in the U.S. Teaching is the largest profession in the world; large portions of teachers are unionized; and by some estimates 8 in 10 teachers are Democrats.


The National Education Association has political power that it often wields in a progressive direction, working to uphold school funding, workable class size, free speech, and more fair taxation to name just a few issues It is one of few organizations that requires ethnic and gender diversity in its own elected representation.


Recent Supreme Court decisions have given the wealthy the ability to make unlimited contributions to political candidates and campaigns. Teachers unions are one of the few entities with anywhere near the financial muscle to stand up to the funding provided by millionaires. The series of efforts designed to weaken the political power of teacher unions make sense in this context.


Are the teachers unions always right? The unions supported a change from a three-year probationary period to two years, which was probably a bad idea.



In cases with which I am personally familiar, this change has actually caused potentially good teachers to be dismissed before they had taught long enough to prove that that they could do a good job.


And though seniority should translate into some job security, the practice of bumping teachers from one school to another based on seniority during times of layoff is not a good idea.


The countries which have the strongest schools, according to international comparisons, have strong teacher unions and they do not have millionaires making education policy from foundations funded by other millionaires.


Teachers unions need to adopt the kind of community alliances and activities practiced by Karen Lewis of the Chicago teachers union and Alex Caputo-Pearl, newly elected president of the L.A. union.


Community involvement in setting the criteria for good teaching; aggressive recruitment of Spanish speakers into teaching; funding for the year of unpaid student teaching which most applicants are now forced to endure; and an ethos of love and respect, rather than suspicion and control, can create the teachers we need.


On the other hand, trying to knock teachers unions out of the political box will have devastating impacts on advocacy for children, for education funding, for decreased standardized testing, and for free speech.


The sunshine in this event might be the shock it provides to all of us to work harder on that community-teacher alliance before public education really is a thing of the past.


Author Bio:


Kitty Kelly Epstein, PhD, is recipient of the 2013 Scholar Activist award from the Urban Affairs Association and author of A Different View of Urban Schools (2012).

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Google Images; Esparta Palma (Flickr)
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