Apodaca: Ending tenure isn't the only answer in education reform

In the past month we've seen some potentially huge changes for public schools in California.

Unfortunately, these changes will likely do little to actually improve the quality of education. And in one case, some harm could result.

The first and most contentious development involves a court decision earlier this month that struck down the tenure and seniority system for public school teachers. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge found that the current laws governing teachers' job security were unconstitutional because they disproportionately harm low-income and minority students by allowing incompetent teachers to remain on the job.

The ruling ended the practice of basing layoff decisions strictly on seniority, stripped away other job safeguards, and eliminated the highly controversial tenure process under which teachers are able to win nearly impenetrable job security after about 18 months of teaching.

Teachers unions blasted the decision as anti-teacher, warning that it could penalize seasoned veterans and make recruiting new talent more difficult. Proponents of tenure reform, however, hailed the ruling as a milestone in efforts to change a system of job protection not seen in any other field and which makes attempts to fire ineffective teachers prohibitively lengthy and expensive.

Among those approving of the decision were U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy, who called the ruling "historic" and "a call to action."

This isn't the final word on the matter, since more litigation will likely follow. But it's clear that the momentum has shifted in a big way toward the anti-tenure movement less than a decade after California voters rejected an initiative that would have lengthened the time it takes for teachers to earn tenure to five years.

In a related development just a week after the court ruling, a state bill that would make it easier for districts to dismiss teachers suspected of egregious misconduct was reportedly on a fast track to be signed into law.

While it's true that reform is long overdue — a point that even many teachers agree with — we should be careful what we wish for. Anyone who thinks that softening or eliminating tenure will make our schools a whole lot better is dreaming. It won't even come close.

The problems that plague public education are so broad and deep that allowing administrators to more easily rid themselves of the very small percentage of truly lousy teachers will by itself have a limited impact. Even now that the economy has improved, and Sacramento has more money flowing to schools — replacing some of the funding that was lost in the recession — we still have a very long way to go to restore California's educational system to an acceptable level of quality.

I expect that even those teachers who approve of tenure reform in theory — since they too don't like seeing the worst of their colleagues protected by outmoded laws — probably wince at the intense focus on this issue when many still don't have enough classroom funds to pay for paper and other basic supplies.

If the interests behind tenure reform want to make our schools better they should take on the other factors that are holding us back, like entrenched poverty, overcrowded classrooms, an outrageous lack of professional development and effective training, and an addiction to testing that consumes teaching time and efforts with little to show in progress on real learning.

So yes, let's get rid of poor teachers, and while we're at it let's also explore changes to another favorite target of critics — pensions. But if we really want to make a difference, let's also give teachers the support and tools they need to do their jobs well, and a fair and comprehensive system of evaluation that doesn't overly rely on test results.

And while we're at it, let's do something that's been shown around the world to have a marked impact on the quality of education. Let's increase teacher pay.

Meanwhile, as the furor over the tenure case has ensued, another development has slipped a little under the radar.

Included in the state spending package for the fiscal year beginning July 1, approved by the Legislature last week, was a cap on the amount of reserves local school districts may hold if Sacramento adopts its own proposed backup fund. The measure would ostensibly keep schools from holding back money from students when a statewide rainy day fund would suffice.

Bad idea, many district leaders are saying. Those local rainy day funds are the means by which some districts over the past several years — including Newport-Mesa Unified — escaped some of the more draconian cuts inflicted on others with no such savings.

NMUSD Deputy Supt. and Chief Business Official Paul Reed called the cap "an unfortunate mistake" that "will cause great harm in a short amount of time." State revenues are very volatile, he noted, and during the recession, costs were shifted to the local level while funding was cut. The only way to weather that storm was through prudent planning and local reserves. Now "few districts will be able to do so again."

Tenure and reserve funds: Two issues that are loaded with political freight and big promises of change ahead. But in both cases, those seeking to reform education just might get more trouble and less progress than they bargained for.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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