California Supreme Court upholds power of teacher unions, permanent status


Jason Harward, staff writer
A polarizing issue, the relevance of teacher unions, was recently heard by the California Supreme Court by way of Vergara v. California, a case that dealt with the power and boundaries of teacher unions and the extent of permanent status.
Permanent status, which is often (and mistakenly) called tenure, is what high school teachers receive after their first two years of teaching. It also seems to be a scapegoat in the fight for educational reform, as it is pointed to by many reformers as a thing of the past, as well as something that keeps bad teachers on the job. However, this is not the case, and the court turned down the plaintiff by a 4-3 vote, upholding the relevance of teacher unions and permanent status.
In a teacher’s first two years, he or she is in what is called the probationary period. This two-year probationary period, which is longer than most professions, is the employer’s chance to watch closely and make sure the teacher is a good fit. After these two years, if an employee seems to be doing a good job, it makes sense that they should be protected against one or two unhappy students. As Christopher Bushée, the BHEA’s grievance chair, puts it, there is a lot right about our education system.
“There is a perception that it is impossible to fire a teacher, that the education system is broken because it is so hard to fire a teacher. I don’t agree with it; I think it’s a false perception. I think that most teachers who don’t belong in the profession are let go within their first two years, exactly when it should happen,” Bushée said.
In Vergara v. California, one thing that the plaintiff brought up was bringing private sector competition to the education environment, which would include higher salaries and an easier firing process. And, at first glance, it seems like a good idea. Somebody who is not as safe in a teaching position will make sure that his or her methods work. However, a teacher who is constantly worried about his/her job would be unable to focus on what is most important: actually teaching.
So let’s try not to sell this apocalyptical landscape of a failing educational system. Yes, there may be a teacher who you don’t get along with, but there is a lot, short of firing, that you and the teacher can do. With that in mind, Bushée does believe that firing should always be an option.
“I also do think that if there truly is a teacher whose performance is so bad that they do not belong in the classroom, there is a prescribed procedure in state law that the school district can follow. And if it really is a correct determination, then following the route is the way to go and that can be done,” Bushée said.
And really, that is just the way it should be.