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Commentary: An effective teacher in every California classroom

Guest contributor | January 27, 2014

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effective teacherBy Marshall Tuck

Every day, in classrooms throughout California, teachers inspire students. Despite inadequate pay and difficult working conditions, teachers are changing children’s lives and preparing them for the road ahead. Within a school, there is nothing more important to a child’s success than an effective teacher.

Yet I’ve seen firsthand how the state’s education law and a lack of political will from Sacramento make it almost impossible for public schools to place an effective teacher in every classroom. In 2008, I led the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools as we took over management of Markham Middle School and 16 other historically low-performing public schools. Just eight months later, we received notices that approximately half of the teachers at Markham would be laid off, including some of our best and most promising educators. At the same time, public schools in wealthier neighborhoods were facing far fewer layoffs.

That’s because, like most schools in low-income neighborhoods, ours had a majority of teachers who were younger – and, according to the state education code, seniority was the only criteria for layoffs. Last-In, First-Out (LIFO) was the law, regardless of the consequences for students. When we asked the LA Unified School District and the CA Department of Education for help keeping our best teachers on the job, they said their hands were tied. But instead of accepting disaster for Markham’s students, we decided to challenge the status quo. Working with a courageous 7th-grader named Sharail Reed, the ACLU filed a lawsuit (Reed v. California) to stop seniority-based layoffs, and to demand fundamental fairness and equal educational opportunities for students in every neighborhood.

Even though the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Sacramento education establishment argued against Sharail Reed, she prevailed in court – and her school was eventually protected from devastating layoffs. Five years later, the Reed case is still winding its way through the judicial system because Sacramento continued to defend seniority-based layoffs and other outdated rules.

But today in Los Angeles, a new trial begins. Vergara v. California has the potential to shake up the broken status quo, modernize the state’s unfair and outdated education code, and bring California closer to fulfilling the constitutional guarantee of educational equality. The question is simple: does every child in California have the right to receive a quality education?

If the answer is yes – and I believe it is – then we have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to provide all children with effective, dedicated teachers who can help them learn and succeed. And because politicians in Sacramento refuse to change the broken system, I support the Vergara lawsuit as one important step in a much larger effort to dramatically improve public schools.

In addition to its focus on ending seniority-based layoffs, Vergara demands reforms to laws that protect ineffective, even dangerous teachers at the expense of students. I know we can protect employees’ due process rights while also protecting students’ rights and safety. Vergara also calls for changes to the lifetime employment guarantee in the education code.

When I led the Partnership for LA Schools, we were forced to grant or deny teachers lifetime tenure after only 18 months on job. Eighteen months is not enough time to make such a consequential decision. I support a common sense tenure system; but I believe we need to strike the right balance between employee protections and students’ needs. In the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in the world, no child should ever have to go to court to get a quality education, and no elected official should ever put outdated regulations ahead of students’ needs.

But the truth is, even if the Vergara lawsuit is successful, we’ll still have a lot of work to do to ensure an effective teacher in every classroom. All of California’s leaders need to work to advance one of the core goals of Vergara – to streamline the state’s 2,300-page education code and make sure state law is fundamentally fair to every student. At the same time, they need to work with parents, educators, and local communities to lift up the teaching profession and support teachers – not just focus on the few who don’t belong in the classroom. To that end, state education leaders and school districts should:

  • Expand and improve teacher training and professional development.
  • Raise teacher salaries and pay teachers more for taking on leadership roles.
  • Develop principals as both instructional leaders and personnel managers.
  • Give teachers and principals the flexibility to do what’s best for their students.
  • Restore school staff such as counselors and janitors, so teachers can focus on learning.

The Vergara lawsuit and school personnel issues are controversial. But if our elected officials had not failed to do their jobs, lawsuits such as Vergara and Reed would not be necessary. I hope this effort succeeds because it provides a unique opportunity to remove legal obstacles to educational equality. We need to do whatever it takes to help Sharail Reed, Beatriz Vergara, and each of California’s 6 million students have an equal opportunity to succeed.

Marshall Tuck is a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction

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