The ruling by a Los Angeles judge this week that teacher tenure as practiced in California is unconstitutional marks the opening round in a complicated legal journey that will take years to settle. It’s also a proxy fight for much deeper education questions around the United States.
The lawsuit -- alleging discrimination against low-income students because of the tenure system and other employment practices -- was led by the same legal experts who engineered the anti-Prop 8 legal strategy. And it was pushed by citizen activist who have the time and resources to fund the expensive legal costs.
Supporters of the action are among those who feel that the legislature has ignored the issue of quality education for too long. Many special interests use the California’s wide open initiative process to push their agenda but the legal approach is relatively new.
Teacher unions countered that tenure is necessary to protect academic freedom and to shield teachers from the whims of administrators. They also pointed out that ineffective teachers represent a very small minority (1 to 3 percent) and that many other factors contribute to challenges for the state’s schools.
Because 90 percent of Catholic children go to public schools, one of the California Catholic Conference’s priority areas is education but it is not, of course, involved in any way in the lawsuit. The Conference advocates for legislation that would maintain high education standards, promotes the involvement of parents in educational decisions and insures the inclusion of faith-based schools in policy matters.
Catholic social teaching, however, would offer some principles to keep in mind. First, all children have the right to a quality education – it is one of the basic rights we have as human beings. Second, all workers have the right to organize but they must also pursue the common good which in this case would take into account both teacher and student rights.
The ruling is not yet final but if upheld will also eliminate the practice of the laying off the newest teachers first and that test scores could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers.