Who'd have thought it? Teacher tenure — the topic that made sparks fly during a gubernatorial debate. And the hottest issue in a close race for state schools chief.
Wonky tenure and other job protections for teachers — good ones and bad ones.
The quality of California public schools — and most specifically their teachers — is a top issue in this election season. And it's about time.
It's front and center because of a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge's ruling in June. Judge Rolf M. Treu, appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1995, threw out some state laws governing teacher job security, declaring them unconstitutional.
These laws allow incompetent teachers to remain in classrooms, and disproportionately in schools with low-income, minority students, the judge asserted.
"The evidence is compelling," Treu wrote. "Indeed, it shocks the conscience."
The judge ruled against the practice of laying off teachers during tough budget times based solely on seniority. "Last hired, first fired" — regardless of teacher competence — is an "unfathomable" concept and "constitutionally unsupportable," he wrote.
Treu also scuttled extra job safeguards not enjoyed by other school or state employees.
And he dumped the two-year tenure system, under which teachers are either fired or granted strong permanent job security. That isn't enough time to grade a teacher, he said, noting that California "is one of only five outlier states" that has such a system.
The judge stayed his ruling pending an appeal.
Appeals have been filed by Gov. Jerry Brown and Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris — Democrats running for reelection — and the teacher unions. Schools chief Tom Torlakson also announced plans to appeal.
Torlakson — strongly supported by the unions, as is Brown — asserted that teachers were being scapegoated.
"We do not fault doctors when the emergency room is full," the superintendent declared. "We do not criticize the firefighter whose supply of water runs dry. Yet while we crowd our classrooms and fail to properly equip them with adequate resources, those who filed and supported this case shamelessly seek to blame teachers who step forward every day to make a difference for our children."
But a few teachers make things worse for the children, the judge wrote, citing court witnesses. He mentioned one expert who testified that a poor instructor costs a class $1.4 million in lifetime earnings. Another contended that the L.A. Unified School District wanted to fire 350 teachers, but couldn't because of "torturous" dismissal hurdles.
So all of this provides campaign fodder for opponents of Brown and Torlakson.
Brown hadn't really said anything himself about the suit until last week's debate, except for a couple of observations in his formal appeal. One was that "changes of this magnitude" in law "require appellate review." Another was that the judge had "declined to provide a detailed statement of the factual and legal" reasons for the ruling.
One of the debate questioners, Times editor at large Jim Newton, tried to pin down Brown on whether he agreed with the judge's conclusions. Brown squirmed away.
"As far as bad teachers, they have no place in the classroom," the governor said, a comment no one could argue with.
Brown added that's why he signed legislation this year to expedite the firing of teachers for gross misconduct, such as lewd behavior. But that bill did little to make it easier to rid schools of incompetent teachers.
"If it's not enough," Brown vowed in the debate, "we'll do further next time."
The governor's underdog Republican opponent, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, pounced.
"The judge got it exactly right," Kashkari shot back at Brown. "You had a choice between siding with the civil rights of poor kids or siding with the union bosses who fund your campaign. You sided with the union bosses. You should be ashamed of yourself, governor."
This got under Brown's skin. "That makes no sense at all," he replied heatedly. "That is so false."
It's doubtful any of this will make much difference in the gubernatorial race because Brown seems a shoo-in — if for no other reason than that Kashkari can't raise campaign money.
But teacher protections could be a huge factor in the tight school superintendent race.
A survey of likely voters published Tuesday by the Field Poll found Torlakson slightly trailing his opponent, Marshall Tuck. The numbers: Tuck 31%, Torlakson 28%, undecided 41%.
Tuck, 41, is the former head of a nonprofit that oversees 15 Los Angeles schools — the creation of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — and before that was the leader of a successful charter school organization.
Villaraigosa is supporting Tuck. His successor, Mayor Eric Garcetti, endorsed Torlakson on Wednesday.
Both Torlakson and Tuck are Democrats, but this is a nonpartisan office. Their party affiliations won't be listed on the ballot. And that's why the contest is so close, the Field Poll's Mark DiCamillo figures.
"In other races, voters can lean on party designation for cues," DiCamillo notes.
Also, when it comes to schools, incumbency may be more of a hindrance than an advantage, DiCamillo thinks. A poll in April by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 50% of people considered public schools a "big problem."
Torlakson says, "I'm definitely not defending the status quo. I'm for getting rid of teachers who shouldn't be in the classroom."
So he, the Legislature and the governor should get on with it.
"We don't need to wait for the courts to decide this," Tuck says.
But unfortunately, it seems we do.