I was given a job for life at the age of 26. Strange, huh? It's not weird at all in the world of public education. I find myself thinking back to my tenure ceremony as I reflect on the Vergara case in California, in which a judge ruled California's teacher tenure and dismissal laws unconstitutional and in violation of students' rights. What if the negligent teachers described by the courageous student plaintiffs were granted tenure at 26 like me? How many children did they let down, how many families did they disappoint, how many futures did they stymie, how many lives did they hurt? What if they were my children's teachers?
I am one of the lucky ones. My "what ifs" are another mother's reality. Actually, they are the reality of millions of mothers.
The district in which I was granted tenure in 2001 is unique because it had already ended the practice of seniority based lay-offs. School leaders were committed to keeping their best teachers in the classroom, even if that meant making the difficult decision of letting a more senior teacher go. But, here's the rub: My district was and remains a place of privilege. It is one of the most affluent communities in New England, houses sell for upwards of a million dollars, 99% of students are proficient in English, 98% are proficient in math, a quarter of the kids attend private school, and over 95% of public school students attend a 4 year college upon graduation. It's a place where the question has never been, "are you going to college?" it has always been "where are you going to college?"
It is easy to see parents of means doing anything to help their children. They will hire tutors, advocate for better teachers, pay for SAT prep classes, and enroll their children in any activity that will give them an 'edge' in the college application process. They want their children to be successful and they believe it is their responsibility to do whatever they can to put the necessary scaffolding in place to make that happen.
It is even easier to overlook or even deny that low income parents will also do anything to help their children. Despite their best efforts, however, they consistently run into obstacles because they lack the necessary financial capacity. Moving, private school, tutors, and enrichment classes are an impossibility. As they found in CA, these families are clearly, "Stuck."
We know schools. We know excellent, mediocre, and bad teachers. But did you know that moving forward to terminate an incompetent and even harmful teacher can eat up hundreds of thousands of school budget dollars; dollars that are already allocated elsewhere to students? Did you know that teachers deemed "too damaging for children" can sit home and collect a full paycheck with full benefits while the "process" works itself out, sometimes over several years?
For a low income child, multiple ineffective teachers can alter the trajectory of their lives, not unlike the potential impact an incompetent Doctor can have on the life of a patient. Their academic health and preparedness is our responsibility, not only as educators but as policy makers and community members. The constitution in every single state guarantees students an "adequate" or "sound" education. However, current tenure, seniority, and dismissal laws make it impossible to fulfill that promise.
Until change comes, I will continue rooting for the courageous students and parents across our nation, including those recently represented in the case Vergara vs. California. Even though I live 3,000 miles away, I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned of the judge's ruling; someone had finally stopped overlooking our babies. Someone listened. Someone who believes every child deserves a great education and cares enough to save them.
It is my hope the judge in Wright vs. New York also rules in a way that honors the students and families. In doing so, he will also honor the vast majority of teachers. He will honor those teachers who work tirelessly for kids but are treated no differently under the law than their incompetent counterparts. Until lawmakers do right by kids, I'll settle for judges doing it instead. If your kids were trapped in a failing school, wouldn't you want someone to come to the rescue?
We can do better and the fix is an easy one. Let's get it done.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three who has taught in public schools in MA, CA, and RI. She has served on her local school board, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools.