Teacher Tenure in the Courts

Recent legal actions in a few states have raised larger questions about the future of teacher tenure policies. Lawsuits have centered on the question of whether teacher tenure policies protect ineffective teachers. However, the specifics of any lawsuit concerning teacher tenure will vary because tenure is a matter of state law, so both the policies and their impact varies across states. For example, while it takes just two years for the tenure process to begin for teachers in California, 32 states require three years of teaching; nine states require four or five years; and four states have no tenure whatsoever.1

In May 2012, a lawsuit in California brought a great deal of media attention to teacher tenure. In Vergara v. California, nine public school students asserted that California’s laws, specifically those governing teacher employment policies, violated the state’s constitutional guarantee of an effective education. Further, they argued that the state statutes in question had a disparate impact on poor and minority students who were more likely to be assigned to a grossly ineffective teacher. In June 2014, a California Superior Court judge issued a preliminary ruling, finding that all of the statutes challenged by the plaintiff students were unconstitutional, effectively striking down state laws governing the hiring, dismissal, and job security of California teachers.2 A state appellate panel unanimously reversed that ruling, and a petition for review in the California State Supreme Court is expected. So final resolution of the case remains unclear.3456 The New York State lawsuits are continuing to move forward in court. However, in the meantime, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo enacted policy changes attaching consequences to teacher evaluation ratings, especially for those seeking tenure. New teachers will have to wait four years before they are eligible for tenure, rather than three, and in that period, they must receive three ratings of effective or highly effective. Also, districts in New York can move to fire tenured teachers with at least two consecutive ratings of ineffective, the lowest assessment.7 The impact of these policy changes on the outcomes of the lawsuits is unknown. As of late 2015, plaintiffs were still awaiting a ruling.8

After Vergara v. California, there was a lot of media attention around teacher tenure and some similar lawsuits were filed, such as those in New York State, but these were largely isolated efforts. It is unclear if these lawsuits are indicative of a trend in tenure reform or simply an uptick in interest in the issue in a few communities.

  1. Brandon Wright, “Teacher Tenure Lawsuits and Their Pitfalls,” Fordham Institute, http://edexcellence.net/articles/teacher-tenure-lawsuits-and-their-pitfalls.
  2. Michael Janofsky,“JUST IN: Vergara Ruling Stands, Judge Rules in Final Review” LA School Report, 2014, accessed July 20, 2015, http://laschoolreport.com/just-in-vergara-ruling-stands-judge-rules-in-final-review/.
  3. Howard Blume, “Gov. Brown Appeals Ruling that Struck Down Teacher Job Protections” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-governor-appeals-vergara-20140829-story.html.
  4. “State Teacher Unions File Appeal in Vergara Case, Calling It ‘Baseless,’” LA School Report http://laschoolreport.com/state-teacher-unions-file-appeal-in-vergara-case-calling-it-baseless/.
  5. Vergara v. California, B258589, California 2nd App. Div. 2, April 14, 2016, accessed May 10, 2016, http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B258589.PDF.
  6. Jennifer Medina and Motoko Rich, “California Court Reverses Decision to Overturn Teacher Tenure Rules,” New York Times, April 14, 2016, accessed May 10, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/15/us/californiaappealscourt-reverses-decision-to-overturn-teacher-tenure-rules.html?_r=0.}

    Following the Vergara v. California ruling, two similar cases were filled in New York State in Albany and Staten Island. Like the California lawsuit, both New York cases argued that the tenure laws violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education” by making it difficult to fire bad teachers and by protecting the most veteran teachers in the event of layoffs, regardless of their quality.[ref Al Baker, “Lawsuit Challenges New York’s Teacher Tenure Laws,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/nyregion/lawsuit-contests-new-yorks-teacher-tenure-laws.html?_r=2.

  7. Elizabeth A. Harris, “Cuomo Gets Deals on Tenure and Evaluations of Teachers,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/nyregion/cuomo-gets-deals-on-tenure-and-evaluations-of-teachers.html.
  8. Associated Press,“Judge Says New York Teacher Tenure Lawsuit Can Proceed,” CNYCentral.com, accessed January 27, 2016, http://cnycentral.com/news/local/judge-says-new-york-teacher-tenure-lawsuit-can-proceed.
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