Teacher Unions Under Fire

Educations Plan to Fight Back After California Ruling Gutting Tenure Emboldens Critics

Caroline Porter and Melanie Trottman | US News

Teachers unions are fighting back against a California ruling that gutted two things they hold sacred: tenure laws and seniority provisions. But they face an uphill battle to reshape their image as opponents—and even some allies—say they are standing in the way of needed improvements in education.

California's teachers unions on Wednesday filed an appeal of the ruling, referring to the state judge's decision as "without support in law or fact." The move followed a separate appeal by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Meantime, the group behind the California case, called Students Matter and headed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, says it is exploring potential action in other states.

Last month, the New York state attorney general filed a motion to combine two related New York cases, one filed by a group called the New York City Parents Union and one brought by Partnership for Educational Justice, a group backed by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown.

Teachers union critics say the tenure and seniority laws that were hobbled by the June ruling protect longtime educators who are ineffective while more proficient ones with less experience face layoffs first.

One group of critics went so far as to place a full-page newspaper ad claiming teachers unions are "treating kids like garbage" and depicting a child's legs sticking out of a trash can. The ad advises people to file suits aimed at weakening state-level tenure laws because "it worked in California."

Moreover, the unions face pushback from some Democrats typically known as union sympathizers and friction with the Obama administration, which has placed greater demands on teachers to show student progress in ways the unions oppose, such as frequent testing.

The developments have left the nation's two largest teachers unions in a quandary: how to alter the perception that they are obstacles to change while holding on to principles such as tenure that their members demand.

The unions used their recent national conventions to respond and have notched up the rhetoric. The National Education Association, the largest teachers union at about three million members, elected a new president who called certain teacher-performance metrics such as test scores "the mark of the devil."

The American Federation of Teachers, the second-biggest union at about 1.6 million members, backs a new group, Democrats for Public Education, which advocates for the union's causes. "Sadly, what has changed is that rather than helping teachers help kids, some…are suing to take away the voices of teachers," said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

In the California case, a state judge in June struck down certain protections for teachers, including tenure after about two years on the job and seniority protections in layoffs. He found in the case, Vergara v. California, that the measures can entrench unqualified teachers, preventing minority and low-income students from receiving the equitable public education required by the state's constitution.

Amy Dean, a former California AFL-CIO official who consults for teacher unions and other labor groups, said teachers unions are being scapegoated in the same way manufacturing unions were accused in the 1980s of hurting America's competitive edge by the allegation they protected lazy, overpaid workers.

Still, she said, teachers unions do need to make changes. "They're up against a huge onslaught right now," said Ms. Dean, who sees a chance for them to build a more "activist, engaged" membership that can help drive the policy debate on educational matters instead of playing defense. She also suggested a renewed focus on community partnerships.

The battle comes at a time when other public-employee unions are under assault as governments face budget crunches. Teachers unions have lost popularity in recent years, public-opinion polls show—even as they largely held on to membership and influence long after corporate unions saw their power erode.

"It's a really critical moment" for teachers unions, said Melissa Tooley, a senior policy analyst who specializes in education at New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. "We're going to see more public battles, with unions pushing back much more strongly on policy areas."

Beyond their usual critics, teachers unions have found themselves at odds with perceived allies. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the California ruling a needed mandate for change. "The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers," he said at the time.

Mr. Duncan's response to the ruling prompted rebukes from the NEA—which called for his resignation—and the AFT, which called for an "improvement plan" for the White House official.

Teachers-union critics say measures backed by the unions grant instructors tenure too quickly and keep bad ones in the system too long. Calling themselves education reformers, the groups are undertaking judicial and legislative efforts to further the California ruling's reach. The group Democrats for Education Reform, for instance, is mobilizing "living-room salons" by chapters across the country.

"This is a campaign on our part that is not going away," said Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, which paid for the ad saying teachers unions treat students "like garbage."

The bickering among education activists and wrangling over the California ruling have left some teachers frustrated.

"Instead of fighting or going through an appeal process, it would be nice to see people sit down at the table and collaborate about real legislative change that could make all of our kids be successful," said Pam Chirichigno, a fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles. 

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