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Teacher Tenure Is a ‘Broken Status Quo,’ Secretary Duncan Says

Education Secretary Arne Duncan
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “The decision affirmed the fundamental duty to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, family income or skin color, receive a quality education -- starting with an effective teacher.” Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Teacher tenure in the U.S. is a “broken status quo” in need of overhaul to balance the needs of disadvantaged students with the rights of educators, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

His remarks follow a tumultuous week that pitted teachers unions against education activists after a California judge struck down the state’s tenure laws on June 10, a ruling Duncan said he supports.

“The decision affirmed the fundamental duty to ensure that all students, regardless of zip code, family income or skin color, receive a quality education -- starting with an effective teacher,” Duncan said in a statement yesterday.

In Vergara v. California, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed with nine students that the state’s tenure laws -- which grant teachers lifetime employment after 18 months -- deprive some students of an equal education because underperforming teachers are shuttled to minority and low-income schools. The ruling is tentative and on hold until any possible appeals are resolved.

“It took enormous courage for 10th-grader Beatriz Vergara and her eight co-plaintiffs to stand up and demand change to a broken status quo,” Duncan said. “It’ll take courage from all of us to come to consensus on new solutions.”

‘Meaningful’ Period

Duncan, a former chief executive officer of Chicago’s public schools, said he isn’t opposed to job security for good teachers. Rather, states should create systems that award tenure after a “meaningful” period of time and a way to remove ineffective teachers even after that point. He also said layoffs should be decided by performance and not by seniority.

The education secretary said he hopes tenure reform can be achieved through negotiation and not by the courts, which could take years to yield results.

“This country has plenty of experience at lawyering up,” he said. “It has less at finding consensus on tough public issues.”

The students’ lawsuit was backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch and his nonprofit organization Students Matter. Teachers’ unions, which intervened to defend the legality of the statutes, have said that the case was part of a broader effort to undermine organized labor. Welch said last week that his group is talking to other states about brining similar lawsuits.

Billionaires including Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, homebuilding and insurance entrepreneur Eli Broad, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Walton family have been pushing for public schools to be run more like businesses. Charter schools, independent of local school districts and typically free of unionized teachers, have been one of their favorite causes.

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