Clear Poll, Murky Politics on California's Teacher Tenure Laws

A new statewide poll finds few Californians support existing teacher tenure rules. (Getty Images)

It's a risky proposition for politicians to sit on the sidelines when public frustration or anger mounts over something, especially in a state like California, where voters wield immense power through the ballot box.

And yet a new public poll suggests all the ingredients are there for a political explosion on the value, even the existence, of tenure protection for the state's public school teachers.

"They have a more nuanced view," said pollster Drew Lieberman about Californians, citing a new survey that shows the public likes teachers but isn't as enamored of their job protections -- the same ones that a Los Angeles judge  declared unconstitutional last year.

The poll released this past weekend by the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Times finds 73 percent of those surveyed would pick some kind of tenure system other than the one that now exists for the state's teachers. And the single largest bloc of Californians -- 38 percent -- said that teachers should have no tenure system at all.

It was last summer when the current tenure system, which generally provides strong job protections for teachers after two years on the job, was on the losing end of a nationally watched case, Vergara v. California. Gov. Jerry Brown and education leaders, as well as teachers unions, have appealed the ruling.

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The case has produced a lot of headlines but very little movement inside the state Capitol. And yet the new poll suggests real skepticism among the public. Just 7 percent of those surveyed believe the current two-year tenure threshold is the right level. And a whopping 82 percent believe that performance should play more of a role in deciding which teachers to keep and which ones to fire.

"Voters overwhelmingly like teachers," said pollster Lieberman in a Monday conference call with reporters. "But at the same time, they do want this level of accountability."

The poll asks which kinds of teachers should be let go first in the event layoffs are needed at a California public school. Of those surveyed, 53 percent say it should be a teacher who "received poor marks" in classroom observations. Only 8 percent said it should be "a teacher who has less seniority," even though that is the foundation of California's "last in, first out" system of teacher job protection.

That's not to say Californians don't value experienced teachers; the poll finds support for seniority privileges in general.

"You still have a majority that say seniority should count for something," said Lieberman. "It just shouldn't count for everything."

Still, it's fascinating that the issue hasn't gained any traction in Sacramento, where the Vergara ruling hasn't seemed to produce any noticeable ripples. Only one bill was introduced this winter to address the system that is now in legal limbo. And politically speaking, tenure has withstood almost every challenge. The last, and most prominent, fight over the system came in 2005, when organized labor helped defeat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Proposition 74.

But the pollsters who conducted the USC/LAT survey believe there are signs of new -- and important -- divisions on how to reward or punish teachers. In particular, the poll found a racial and ethnic gap when it comes to the value of standardized testing in holding educators accountable. Whites were more leery of the value of testing (40 percent) than were black (55 percent), Latino (52 percent) or Asian Californians (56 percent).

Pollster Dave Kanevsky called it a "cultural gap" on how to reward educators.

"The question is not whether performance matters" for nonwhites, he said, "but in how to measure performance."

At this juncture, no one seems to be clamoring for a 2016 battle over new teacher tenure rules or performance-based measurements. But the poll numbers suggest an appetite for the debate among many Californians -- one that, absent a more thorough and measured discussion in the legislative arena, could become a noisy hunger should tenure critics decide to champion changes on their own.

NOTE: An original version of this story said that no bills had been introduced to change the tenure system. That was incorrect; Assembly Bill 1248, to lengthen the tenure process to three years, was introduced in February by Asm. Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside).