Give Me Colorado, Not California: A Tale of Two Teacher Tenure Court Cases

“It was the best of education lawsuits, it was the worst of education lawsuits….” Well, not exactly. Some well-publicized legal action in California is trying to achieve a (much better) policy goal that runs counter to a Colorado lawsuit I’ve talked about before. Still, there is the fundamental problem of trying to change education policy through the courts.

Prof. Joshua Dunn, a Colorado-based expert on education court cases, makes the point much more eloquently. He talked with one of my Education Policy Center friends on a radio interview for the Amy Oliver Show. The good news is how he handicaps the Colorado Education Association’s chances of success using the courts to overturn a law that protects students from poor performing teachers.

Unfolding on the West Coast is a different tale, the case of Vergara v. California, filed several years ago against the state teachers union. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur, through his group Students Matter, is seeking to change tenure and dismissal policies that keep ineffective instructors in classrooms and on payrolls.

Los Angeles students who were named as plaintiffs took to the stand this month, as Eric Phillips from the Wall Street Journal has reported. I like the policy goals they’re trying to accomplish, but Professor Dunn makes a forceful case that the court system is the wrong venue. I have to wonder if California reformers, having tried other approaches, might be acting out of desperation.

Here in Colorado, the desperation comes from a teachers union that tried to water down the accountability in SB 191 tenure and evaluation reform before finally, last month, filing suit against it. A Denver Post op-ed by former governors from both major parties makes a strong argument against CEA’s lawsuit, while also citing poll data that shows how unpopular their approach is.

Union leaders insist publicly they just want to “fix” the part of the law that requires a principal to agree to have a teacher placed in his or her school. The State Board of Education chairman explains why that “mutual consent” provision is a linchpin of the whole reform:

CEA’s lawsuit seeks to grant unilateral veto power to ineffective teachers and the union that defends them. Slashing the provision would render SB191 powerless. If schools can be forced to accept incompatible teachers over principals’ objections, then why even track teacher performance? If teachers cannot be held accountable, then principals, schools, and districts all have an automatic excuse for unsatisfactory results.

Still, that hasn’t stopped CEA from also backing HB 1268, which would accomplish the same thing as the lawsuit. I expect it doesn’t have as much chance of passing the legislature as does HB 1262, a bipartisan proposal to create more pay incentives for great teachers.

While I have to admire what Students Matter is trying to do through its legal action, I’m glad not to be from California — or even New York City — when it comes to this case. We still have to keep working, but at least in Colorado we hold the high ground of defending (and advancing more) good policies.