How Teacher Tenure Figures Into the November Election

Students raise their hands in class. (Getty Images)

Educators in California know well the debate over tenure, the job security given to teachers after about two years in the classroom. But for those outside education, it may be hard to understand why teacher tenure is such a big deal, especially during an election season in which both Democrats and Republicans are seizing on the issue to win votes. Let’s rewind the clock for a moment.

Earlier this year, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles issued a landmark ruling that says three state laws actually allow bad teachers to keep their jobs, depriving students of a quality education.

Neel Kashkari, the man gunning to be the state's next governor, was quick to jump all over that ruling during his only debate with incumbent Jerry Brown, who is appealing the ruling.  “You sided with the union bosses. You should be ashamed of yourself, Governor. I’m going to fight for the kids. I’m going to fight for the kids, I want you to know that,” attacked Kashkari. Brown retorted, “That makes no sense at all. That is so false.”

If the judge's decision stands, California would be the first state in the country where teachers could get fired almost regardless of their seniority. Kashkari has focused his entire campaign in the last few weeks on the judge's decision, including a controversial TV ad of a child drowning in a pool – who Kashkari says represents the kids Brown refuses to rescue.

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All of this underscores just how explosive the issue of tenure has become this election season, and nowhere more so than in the race for state superintendent of public instruction. Incumbent Tom Torlakson is joining Brown in appealing the ruling. “Stop blaming teachers and attacking them about taking away their job protections, that’s no way to improve our schools in California,” he says.

Torlakson is in a tight race against Marshall Tuck, a charter school executive who wants to rein in teacher job protections.
It's created a kind of "battle royale," pitting those who call themselves education reformers -- and support Tuck -- against the state's powerful teachers unions, which back the incumbent Torlakson.

But Torlakson says stripping veteran teachers of these rights doesn't get at the state's real education problem. “We know the way to improve our schools is to invest. To get the dollars in there so we can have smaller class sizes, bring back art music and drama, have stronger academics,” he says.

Teachers unions hope that message will get across to voters and have poured more than $2 million into Torlakson's bid for re-election.

Those same unions are staking a claim in several legislative races where teacher seniority is also a hot-button issue. Political ads play up Democrat Tim Sbranti's teaching experience in the 16th Assembly District, made up of well-to-do suburbs east of San Francisco.

But Sbranti wasn't just an educator. He also led the political action committee for the California Teachers Association, arguably the state's most powerful interest group. He says he was proud to serve: “I knew at the time then and now that I had to do and stand up for what is right.”

I caught up with Sbranti at a recent debate against his opponent, Republican Catharine Baker, whose campaign speeches and mailers play up Sbranti's union connections -- and her opposition to teacher tenure.

Sbranti says what's missing from this whole debate is what California should be doing to help educators become more effective.

“My biggest focus is what are we doing to uplift the other 95 percent of teachers who are dedicated to their craft, who want to do right by students. What are we doing to make above-average teachers, great? Or -- great teachers off the charts?”

But Baker, his challenger, doesn't buy it.

Baker is an attorney and a mother of two school-age children, and says she's seen firsthand how bad teachers can hold kids back. She's been racking up newspaper endorsements, in part because of her stand on tenure.

She says many parents like her support fewer teacher job protections. “And there’s nothing they can do about it. And principals are frustrated. And the really great teachers that we have all throughout our schools, they’re frustrated, too, because they know they’re treated exactly the same as someone who may be less effective in that career,” she says.

A statewide poll over the summer on teacher tenure seems to reflect that dissatisfaction. Researchers at Stanford and USC found more than 60 percent of California voters support fewer teacher job protections.

Of course, the real poll is the one that comes out on Election Day.

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