Poll: California voters take a dim view of teacher tenure

Members of United Teachers Los Angeles press their contract demands at a recent rally in downtown's Grand Park.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Gisela Aviles is a 49-year-old real estate agent in Corona. Henry Yoshikawa is a 71-year-old former administrator for a tiny school district in Placer County. And Arianna Rivera is a 23-year-old bank teller in East Los Angeles.

Although strikingly different, they are among an overwhelming majority of California voters who shared remarkably similar views about teachers in a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. They agree that teachers receive tenure much too quickly. And they believe that performance should matter more than seniority when teachers are laid off.

They also favor making it easier to fire instructors — although, at the same time, they think highly of teachers and want more resources for public schools that serve disadvantaged children.


“There is a very important lesson here for California politicians,” said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. The poll findings indicate that voters “want to help teachers and support them ... but they’re also more than willing to take stronger steps to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.”

Issues affecting teachers’ job protections are at the center of a national debate over how best to improve schools.

On one side are foundations, business interests and the Obama administration, which have said students will benefit if teachers are held more accountable. To them, that includes making it easier to fire teachers who fail to deliver results, such as improvement on student standardized tests.

Teachers unions and other critics counter that targeting instructors weakens labor’s ability to counteract proposals they believe are undermining public education. They want more focus on other factors that affect students, such as poverty, school resources and class sizes.

In California, nearly half of voters surveyed in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll favored a longer period to earn tenure than the two years granted under state law. Among those who favored some form of tenure, the largest group wanted teachers to earn it after seven to 10 years. More than a third opposed any form of tenure.

Voters also placed little faith in the seniority system that governs most layoffs in tough economic times. When given a list of options, only 8% said seniority should be the primary factor driving which teachers are let go.


More than half, 53%, instead said that teachers who have low marks when they are observed in their classrooms should be the first dismissed. And 26%, the next largest group, said that layoffs should first affect teachers whose students aren’t progressing on standardized tests.

Seniority — the main yardstick currently used to determine which teachers to dismiss during budget crises — fell far back in the poll, followed by teachers who have less advanced training than others.

Although these opinions don’t coincide with state law, they line up with advocates who sued the state in last year’s landmark litigation, Vergara vs. California. In that case, an L.A. County Superior Court judge threw out tenure, seniority and other traditional job protections. That ruling is on appeal.

Rivera came by her views about teachers through experience as a student in both traditional and independently operated, public charter schools. At the charters, which don’t have to follow seniority and tenure rules, she remembers young, enthusiastic, hardworking teachers.

By contrast, at the traditional schools, “there were older teachers with tenure who don’t care. They were not there mentally and emotionally,” said Rivera, who is registered with the Peace and Freedom Party and describes her politics as liberal.

If tenure were earned after 10 to 15 years, schools would have time to weed out the less dedicated, she said. Overall, she said, performance should matter when layoffs must occur.

Pollsters found such opinions widespread in a telephone survey of 1,504 voters from March 28 through April 7.

The “last in, first out” system for handling layoffs is “rejected by overwhelming margins regardless of what group you are,” said Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the bipartisan team that conducted the poll.

“The average voter may not know the name Vergara, but they tend to affirm the basic tenet of accountability,” said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic half of the polling team. Voters “realize that not all teachers are created equal and that separating the good from the bad is part of the calculus.”

Public school teachers without tenure currently can be fired at the will of their school district. Tenured teachers can be removed immediately for gross misconduct or pending an investigation of serious allegations. But dismissing an instructor for ineffective teaching typically is lengthy and expensive.

In the poll, nearly three-quarters of voters said it was very or somewhat important to make it easier to fire underperforming teachers.

Unions have fought hard for tenure rights, characterizing them as due process to prevent unfair or arbitrary dismissals.

Yoshikawa, a registered Republican, said he helped establish the teachers union in the district where he worked, yet he opposes all forms of tenure. Having teachers work on an annual contract would result in a higher-quality teacher corps, he said.

For Aviles, who declined to state a party affiliation, accountability for teachers also should include pay raises based on merit.

“Their students have to be improving, so I believe that if you’re doing a good job and your students are improving on the test scores, then by all means you deserve a raise,” she said.

In the survey, 77% of voters said it was important to base teacher pay on a range of measures, including student achievement, classroom observation and parent feedback; 64% said student progress on tests and achievement should be important factors.

At the same time, pollsters and other analysts say, there appears to be a strong affinity for teachers.

More than half of those surveyed, including Aviles, felt teachers were underpaid. They also want more resources invested in traditional public schools.

“Californians want their children’s teachers to succeed and want to give them every tool possible,” said Schnur of USC. “But there is a limit on their patience.”

California voters place more faith in teachers than anyone else when it comes to doing what’s best for students, according to the poll.

Half of those surveyed put teachers first or second when given a list of groups they most trust to improve schools. Parents finished next.

Teachers unions finished well behind, but still ahead of school district administrators, Gov. Jerry Brown and “philanthropists who seek to change the traditional education system.”

This dynamic played out in the recent race for state superintendent of public instruction between incumbent Tom Torlakson, backed by unions, and Marshall Tuck, who championed the court ruling that weakened job protections and who received key support from wealthy donors.

In that tightly contested race, the unions were able to associate Tuck with wealthy contributors and to link Torlakson, by contrast, with teachers, said Michael Madrid, a fellow at the Unruh Institute.

Policies endorsed by teachers unions often have prevailed at the ballot and in the Legislature. The last ballot attempt to extend the time needed to earn tenure was put forward in 2005 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Voters, siding with teachers unions, defeated it.

The margin of error in the poll is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points, higher for subgroups.

Twitter: @howardblume