Skip to main content

Students win, tenure loses

By Mel Robbins
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Judge in California ruled the state's tenure laws are unconstitutional
  • He found that tenure denies students their right to a decent education
  • Mel Robbins: Teachers' unions intend to appeal the ruling, which will become a national test case
  • She says the unions are going to lose in the courts of law and the court of public opinion

Editor's note: Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator and legal analyst. Robbins is the founder of Inspire52.com, a positive news website and author of "Stop Saying You're Fine," about managing change. She speaks on leadership around the world and in 2014 was named Outstanding News Talk Radio Host by the Gracie Awards. Follow her on Twitter @melrobbins. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mel Robbins.

(CNN) -- A judge in California just sent shock waves across America's public education system, declaring tenure laws unconstitutional.

The case started two years ago, when nine students sued the state of California, asserting that their constitutional right to equality of education is violated by laws that protect "grossly inadequate teachers." Two unions representing 425,000 teachers stepped in to fight the students, their families and a legal team backed by a powerful education reformer, Students Matter.

The students had two main arguments.

First, that five California laws that allow public school teachers to secure (and keep) tenure after 18 short months caused the students to be unreasonably exposed to "grossly ineffective teachers." And second, that minority and poor students were disproportionately stuck with them.

Mel Robbins
Mel Robbins

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu not only agreed with the students, he drew parallels between his opinion and the decision in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down "separate but equal" laws and ended segregation in schools. Treu put a spotlight on the negative impact (loss of competency and earning potential) that grossly ineffective teachers have on kids and labeled it "compelling" and "a shock to the system."

The judicial beat down was so complete and unequivocal, the judge struck down any and all laws that protect grossly ineffective teachers at the expense of kids, including laws that protect "permanent employment status," "first in first out" and "dismissal statutes."

Here were the key elements of the ruling:

1. California is one of 37 states that give permanent employment status to teachers in three years or less. In California, it was a mere 18 months on the job. The judge found that both teachers and students are "disadvantaged" by the practice and that there's "no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one)" to rush to tenure.

Teacher tenure ruled unconstitutional

2. "Dismissal statues." Experts testified that dismissals in California are "extremely rare" and administrators find it next to "impossible" to get rid of ineffective teachers. In 38 states, teachers can have multiple appeals and the process is so complex and costly it can take up to 10 years in some states and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove someone. The judge found the termination process such a joke he called it an "illusion."

3. "Last In, First Out." In 33 states, if there are layoffs, it's last in, first out with no regard of merit. The judge raised the common-sense point that if the best teacher is the junior one, his or her merit should be considered in the decision of who to lay off.

The message is loud and clear: Students, we've got your back.

Unions, get ready for a fight. And a fight it will be. This isn't just a case about schools in California, but one that education reformers and teachers' unions are watching across the nation. The unions plan to fight for tenure all the way to the Supreme Court if they have to -- and it's a fight I believe they will lose in both the courts of law and the court of public opinion.

We all agree that schools are a place where the first and foremost goal should be to help children learn and succeed. We also agree that schools are failing. Pick any metric (drop-out rates, comparisons to other countries, grade-level competencies), and you'll find a system that's horribly broken. Ask anyone how to fix it and you'll get widely different answers.

I personally agree with both Sir Ken Robinson's assessment of our schools and his argument for a total paradigm shift in education; you may have a different TED Talk you prefer on education.

Great, competent teachers are the single most important factor in kids in-school learning and growth experience. I encourage you to read the opinion. This judge acknowledges how powerful teachers are and describes the power they truly have to make a difference: "Competent teachers are a critical, if not most important component of success of a child's in-school education experience."

There are many outside-school factors that impact students: poverty, violence, home life, health, nutrition or disabilities but as this judge so eloquently writes, "quality of teaching is what matters most for the students' development and learning in school."

This decision isn't an indictment of teachers in general; it's a statement about the critical difference they make (positive and negative) and a take down of laws that protect the "grossly inadequate" ones.

It's sad that the unions are gearing up for a fight. It's too bad the judge couldn't just make his decision and assign a little homework instead.

How remarkable would it be to see a teachers union leader, who claims that the union puts kids first, have to write an essay reflecting on the lessons learned after hearing testimony for two months.

Maybe, just maybe, 18 months is a bit hasty for a tenure review. Maybe "Last In, First Out" isn't the best layoff system for kids or for teachers. Maybe overhauling the dismissal process for incompetent teachers is not only best for students but actually strengthens the union because its active members are the ones who are more effective in the classroom.

It was a shame in 1954 that students had to sue to gain their constitutional right to equal access to education, and it's a shame that 60 years later students are still fighting to secure it and teachers' unions are the ones fighting them every step of the way.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT