Get back to job of teacher tenure reform

A California's judge's ruling that state teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education and violate their civil rights will prompt similar court challenges to these laws in other states. Connecticut could be among the first.

The nonprofit group that brought the suit is now considering similar actions in seven states, New York, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho, Kansas and Connecticut, as well as others where powerful unions have blocked attempts at tenure reform. Connecticut might have avoided inclusion in this group if it had proceeded with the Malloy administration's education reform package that was passed in 2012, only to have its implementation delayed last January until at least after the November election - and maybe longer.

The reform would have included what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called "a robust measurement" of a teacher's effectiveness that could lead to the easier dismissal of both incompetent, untenured teachers and those with tenure. It would be something of a test to see if tenure could be made to work for students and not just for teachers.

The new system theoretically replaced the current, years-long process of dismissing incompetent tenured teachers by offering them a chance to improve by participating in a mentorship program. If the teacher still failed to show improvement, he or she could be dismissed once an impartial arbitrator determined the teacher had been fairly evaluated. With tenure left intact, the teachers' unions did not oppose the plan, and it passed easily two years ago.

But then the Malloy reforms became entangled - logistically and politically - in the implementation of the controversial federal Common Core educational standard, approved by the General Assembly in 2010. Both have complex teacher evaluation programs that must be reconciled and so, delay through an election became an easy solution for everyone, except the students.

Teachers have expressed strong reservations and concerns about the time, support and preparation needed to make Common Core workable. There are also questions about the availability of adequate technology and training for the major educational change. National surveys find the public's knowledge of all this runs the gamut from confused to uninformed.

The California finding that state tenure laws had deprived students of a decent education and their civil rights by leaving bad teachers in place marks a new approach to this battle. Previously, states that were sued for providing inferior education to poor and minority children had to defend allowing more money to be spent educating children in predominately white, wealthier communities. The California decision says this disparity also deprives the poor and minority students of their civil rights by sending the worst teachers to the poorest school systems.

Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court said the practice of making it impossible to fire even the worst teachers "shocks the conscience."

The decision found that once teachers become tenured, even those who are grossly ineffective are protected by a dismissal process so "complex, time consuming and expensive that it could take nearly 10 years and cost $450,000 before its run its course." There is evidence that Connecticut communities have had similar experiences that have prompted them to give up on dismissal and let incompetent teachers keep their jobs.

Another practice common to California, Connecticut and other unionized states is the last in, first out seniority system, which takes no account of the comparable talents of junior and senior teachers in determining layoffs. Judge Treu said school systems practicing layoff seniority would have to argue it had a compelling interest in separating children from good teachers and subjecting them to incompetents who do them harm.

There is little doubt appellate courts will have an interest in "the compelling evidence" in Judge Treu's findings, leaving legislatures and teachers unions here and elsewhere time to fix tenure and seniority on their own - or wait and risk having the courts do it.

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