An important and historical court case recently concluded in California that has implications for Canadian public schools. In Vergara v. California , the Superior Court for Los Angeles ruled that some of the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws are unconstitutional.
A non-profit organization, Students Matter, assisted nine children in arguing that the laws violate their rights to a quality education and equal opportunity to succeed, because they keep ineffective teachers in the classroom. Moreover, evidence shows that ineffective teachers are disproportionately found in the schools attended by poor or minority children.
Students Matter argues that the permanent employment statute, which requires teachers to be granted or denied permanent employment within the first 16 months of teaching, does not give evaluators enough time to assess whether a teacher will be effective long-term. The plaintiffs also dislike that the “Last-In, First-Out” rule for layoffs pays no heed to good teachers who go above and beyond for their students.
While all public employees in the state are guaranteed due process before dismissal, the plaintiffs explain that there are unreasonable, additional laws that apply exclusively to teachers. The result is a dismissal process that requires years of documentation, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and is not even guaranteed to work. Students Matter reports a yearly teacher dismissal rate of 0.0008 percent in California.
Likewise, in Canada, few teachers are dismissed, but finding data regarding transfers, disciplinary action, or dismissals is incredibly difficult, as many teachers’ associations do not release statistics to the public.
Anecdotally, we know that instead of attempting the excessively tedious and costly process to dismiss bad teachers, Canadian administrators will transfer them, encourage early retirement, give increased workloads, or promote them to senior administrative positions.
Ineffective teachers might lack subject knowledge, have poor classroom management skills, or fail to plan their lessons. They have been shown to negatively impact student achievement and contribute to the number of students dropping out of school.
Taxpayers and parents do not understand how bad teachers can continue to teach, but it may be in part due to the fact that provincial governments come under fire when they challenge teachers’ associations.
For example, former Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson was recently criticized for cancelling the teacher certificate of someone who would injure students by angrily kicking furniture and throwing objects at them. The teachers’ association committee called for a two-year suspension. Even grossly inappropriate behaviour does not always mean that teachers will be dismissed.
Tenure should give job security to the teachers who should not be blamed for poor results due to factors beyond their control; it should not mean job security for incompetent or abusive teachers.
While ineffective teachers continue teaching in Canada, a significant proportion of motivated education graduates are struggling to find positions. Ontario is reducing the number of students admitted to teachers’ colleges by about 50 percent and extending the program from one year to two. The province is not firing incompetent teachers and is graduating fewer competent ones.
The question that remains from all of this is: how will the status quo of protecting bad teachers change?
School boards and teachers’ associations should be asked to publish more information and statistics so that Canadians can learn what is being done about bad teachers. If provincial governments are unable or unwilling to address the problem, the answer may lie with the courts.
The Canadian Constitution is different than the California Constitution, but it is similar in that it contains equality rights in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Every individual has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law.
It may be the case in Canada, as well, that bad teachers disproportionately end up in schools with minority or disadvantaged children, which strengthens the argument that the tenure rules are unconstitutional. The Charter explicitly forbids discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, age, or mental or physical disability.
Canadian policymakers should keep their eye on the California court case. The case is being appealed, but people are already coming out with ideas for reform that prioritize students and still respect teachers’ needs and rights. If a new regulatory framework is created that will protect students from bad teachers and reward good teachers, this could happen in Canada too.