Tuesday's decision in the Vergara v. State of California case came as a surprise to me, a California public school teacher, since I am well aware of the power that our state's teachers' unions are reputed to hold. While the decision itself may actually have been just, it will do nothing to address the true problems underlying the vast disparities that exist in our public education system. Simply changing teacher tenure laws will not create equity in our schools.
The court cited Brown v. Board of Education in their decision, stating that all students have the right to an equal education regardless of their race or social class. Evidence was cited to show that students of color are more likely to have ineffective teachers, or newer teachers who are more likely to be removed in the face of layoffs under existing seniority laws. However, teacher tenure is not the cause of this problem, and changing the tenure process will not solve it.
It is no coincidence that newer, less-experienced teachers tend to be employed at lower-income schools, while the best, most experienced teachers tend to be found in higher-income schools. The reason for this disparity is clear. Throughout California, teacher salaries vary drastically from district to district, with teacher salaries up to 50 percent higher in the best-paying schools. It should come as no surprise to find that higher-paying districts tend to be in higher-income communities, while lower-paying districts tend to be in lower-income areas, including the inner city and remote rural areas. And it is less surprising still to find that these schools also tend to represent a higher percentage of students of color.
There are many amazing teachers who are called to work in low-income schools, and who make this their life's work. These teachers work harder and are paid less. However, the harsh reality is that school districts that can pay more can compete for the very best teachers, not just for those with the best of intentions. It is not hard to understand, however, why some teachers choose to apply to higher-paying jobs in better-funded schools, schools with up-to-date materials and facilities, adequate support staff, modern technology, a decent budget for supplies... the list goes on long past just salary as to why a teacher might choose to work at a better-funded school. None of these realities has anything to do with teacher tenure.
If we as a state, and as a country, are truly committed to providing an equal education to every student in every district, then we must be prepared to fund every school equally. Lengthening the tenure decision process from two to three or even five years will not change the fact that our schools themselves, and the teachers they can afford to hire, vary wildly from district to district, often even from town to town. The disparities in our schools are not caused by teacher tenure, but rather by the realities that individual schools and their teachers, as well as their students, face every day.