A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge’s ruling that declared California’s tough teacher-tenure laws unconstitutional has left some people in Montana concerned of possible ripple effects closer to home.
In response to a lawsuit that was filed in May of 2012, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled on Tuesday in Vergara v. California that California laws governing teacher-tenure are unconstitutional.
Evoking the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on Brown v. Board of Education, Treu wrote that the tenure laws infringed on a student’s right to an equal education.
When former Billings school board trustee and Montana Education Association employee Karen Moses heard the news, she thought to herself, “Oh no! Do we really have to do this now?”
Moses calls it the “tenure war.” And she said now is not the time for it.
“It gives more fuel to the fire to those who’d like to dismantle (tenure),” she said. “If it worries me it’s because it could be a distraction to real problems.”
In Montana, tenure is a form of protection for teachers. President Scott McCulloch of the Billings Education Association — the teacher’s union for SD2 — said it’s something that protects them from “arbitrary” firing.
While some might criticize the system for creating an environment where it’s impossible to remove bad teachers, McCulloch said that the claim is simply not true.
In Montana, he said, teachers have to go through a three-year probationary period before they are “awarded” tenure, during which time they are evaluated twice a year.
The evaluations are based on things like a teacher’s understanding of students, of the curriculum and their pedagogy.
If a teacher is ineffective, there is a process for removing him or her, he said.
Moses said she witnessed that first hand.
When it comes to teachers underperforming, she said, “I don’t know what tenure in California looks like, but I'm here to tell you in Montana there’s not a board I've served on that would have that teacher continue to teach.”
“Tenure is not a job for life, it just means there’s due process.” She said in her 10 years of combined service on the board she’s had to remove a teacher more than once.
McCulloch said over the last few legislative sessions there have been several bill drafts that have tried to take a stab at tenure in Montana, but none have been successful. He agreed with Moses, however, that the California decision could be a sign of encouragement for those who’d like to take a stab at it again. He also agreed that it’s a distraction.
An additional concern for those in favor of tenure is that a teacher with seniority might be let go in favor of a less-experienced yet cheaper teacher. People who are pro-tenure also argue that the movement is conservatively charged.
Rick Berman, the executive director for the Center for Union Facts in Washington D.C., disagreed, saying that the movement was neither liberal nor conservative.
Eric Olsen, the co-organizer of Montana Shrugged Tea Party Patriots, also opposes tenure and thinks schools should be more like businesses.
When it comes to the budget, if they can get two inexperienced teachers for the price of one experienced teacher, Olsen said they should do it.
“That’s just part of the system. You see that in the corporate world,” he said, adding that he didn’t think it’d bother kids too much.
“Kids are real flexible. They’re probably the most flexible creatures on earth.”