August 22, 2019

‘No tenure’ ruling for teachers won’t fix the problem

In the landmark Vergara v. California decision last week, Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the nine student plaintiffs, backed by billionaire David Welch’s nonprofit StudentsMatter, had been deprived of their right to an equal education by seniority and tenure policies that protected bad teachers in low-income communities. On the stand, the students told stomach-turning stories of middle-school teachers who had slept in class, made racist comments and allowed pandemonium that prevented them from learning.  

The verdict has been hailed by some as a civil rights victory and lamented by others as a calculated body blow to the power of unions. 

So which is it? I say it’s neither.

I’m an English teacher; I taught for five years at a charter school in South Los Angeles, but I spent the past year visiting high-school classrooms across the city, talking to teachers and students in communities across the socioeconomic spectrum. In my journey, I’ve borne witness to the shocking educational inequality in this city. Children of color from low-income communities continue to be educated in almost complete segregation, in the lowest-performing schools, 60 years after the United States Supreme Court mandated integration in its ruling on Brown v. Board of Education.  I agree that tenure and seniority policies need to be rethought, and unions need to work much harder to catch up with the realities of a 21st-century workplace, where the idea of lifetime employment is a relic. I believe that unions can rise to the challenge — they have to, in order to remain relevant. But I’m concerned by the “off with their heads!” zeal with which this charge is happening, by the catharsis we are all enjoying with its attendant, very inexpensive satisfaction at the notion that we can all sit back, fire some bad apples and fix educational inequality without spending a dime.  

I’m deeply troubled by the implicit notion that all these good young teachers were laid off because of the bad teachers who remained on the job. In fact, the real reason so many good teachers lost their jobs was that we, the citizens of California, turned a blind eye to the radical budget cuts to education over the last five years, cuts so severe that even if we’d fired every bad teacher, we would still have been hemorrhaging good teachers.  

We’ve slashed so many teachers’ positions in the last few years that students are now packed 50 to a classroom, and if a kid has issues, he’s out of luck: We’ve cut counselors, assistant principals, librarians, security guards, arts, field trips, after-school programming, summer school, books and even paper.

You want to start a lawsuit?  I’d start there, with the warehousing of our most vulnerable students in intolerable conditions without the resources to meet the emotional needs of students who are dealing with multiple traumas, who are sometimes afraid to walk home because of violence in the community; who often have only one parent, who is rarely home because she works two jobs; who often are still learning English; who sometimes live in foster care and occasionally are still recovering from a stay in a juvenile detention center.

What does it mean to say that firing “bad teachers” will meet the needs of these students when we’re not giving good teachers the resources and support they desperately need in order to do their jobs? Earlier this year, I visited an excellent teacher who had five boys wandering around her classroom, talking and acting out in spite of her time-tested classroom management system. But when she asked the administration for support, they told her there was no administrator available, so she should just ignore them. Obviously, they continued to act out, bothering other students, who eventually developed their own behavior problems. Not surprisingly, that teacher quit at the end of this school year.  

The thing is, our real problem is not how to fire the small number of bad teachers. It’s how to attract and retain good teachers, who are currently quitting almost as fast as we hire them. At Los Angeles charters in high-poverty communities, a 2011 UC Berkeley study showed that teacher turnover was 50 percent per year. Over and over, teachers tell me the same thing: They love their students. But they can’t work in unsustainable, burnout conditions forever. The real battle for equality begins by saying that our students matter enough to place value on the people who work with them. We want to be good teachers. We want to change lives. We are here to fight for equality every day. But we can’t do it without support, resources or competent administrators.

So, sure, let’s get rid of bad teachers. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that’s enough. The real work is only beginning, and unlike firing people, it won’t be cheap or easy. We are all accountable for the ongoing inequality in this country. If we’re willing to admit that giving every child an equal opportunity will take money, time and some very painful honesty about the segregated and unequal conditions in which large numbers of children in poverty are growing up, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll begin to move toward giving these nine plaintiffs the equal education that they, and all children,


Ellie Herman spent 20 years working as a writer/producer for TV shows before becoming a teacher at a charter high school in South Los Angeles in 2007. She has spent the past academic year looking at the state of education and teaching in Los Angeles, and blogging about her findings at