A look at the rights and due process given to tenured public school teachers in California — especially when they've been accused of wrongdoing — makes one thing clear: There's nothing simple about it.
In 1921, California adopted a policy granting tenure to its public school teachers after a two-year probationary period, becoming the first state to do so. Other U.S. states have since adopted similar policies, although many have a longer probationary period.
Under the current rules, after a teacher has been with a school system for two years, administrators can recommend that the school board grant the teacher tenure, also called "permanent status," explained Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District. The new status confers a certain amount of job security; as Groves put it, such teachers are "protected from arbitrary and capricious reasons" for dismissal.
Groves said the status isn't granted lightly. "To gain tenure we have very high standards," he said. "We take tenure very seriously." Fiona Walter, a trustee of the Mountain View Whisman School District, said administrators watch over teachers and make recommendations to the board, adding that "If you maintain someone past two years, you essentially grant them tenure."
Tenured teachers can only be dismissed for certain violations, including "unsatisfactory performance or misconduct," according to UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies. But typically, there is a long and involved review process between allegations of misconduct and a tenured teacher's dismissal.
Dismissal not easy
The dismissal process varies from district to district. In the local high school district, teachers are given "due process" before appearing before the district school board, administrators said. The board's decision can be appealed to a panel of three judges, then appealed again up the judicial system.
According to a recent Los Angeles Times investigative series titled "Failure gets a pass," this process of appealing rulings can go on for years, potentially costing a school district millions in legal fees and lost work — and often creating an effective deterrent against pursuing complaints.
As for teachers' legal costs, Dina Martin, spokesperson for the California Teachers Association, said they are covered by CTA dues.
Often, the Times reported, a case gets complicated very quickly, with the end result being buyouts, forced retirements or strict disciplinary measures.
Because of these obstacles, problem teachers can be moved from school to school rather than fired, the Times reported. Parents also find it difficult to obtain a district's records on teacher misconduct.
Many local parents have asked the Voice what steps they can take to protect their children from an errant teacher, in the rare case that it becomes necessary. After a weeklong investigation into tenured teachers' rights — including interviews with local superintendents and school board members, representatives from the Santa Clara County Office of Education and the California Teacher's Association, and people from several offices of the California Department of Education — the Voice found that answers to this question were hard to come by.
Private vs. public
Because teachers are employees of a school district, and allegations of misconduct are a personnel matter, neither the Mountain View Whisman nor Mountain View-Los Altos school districts would discuss many specifics when it comes to the teacher review process.
When a district reviews a teacher's performance, said Fiona Walter, it "brings private rights into a public session." All disciplinary actions are done in closed session, she said, adding there was not much more she could comment on.
Walter directed further questions to Superintendent Maurice Ghysels and Stephanie Totter, director of administrative services. Administrators were on vacation as of last week, but Ghysels said that when it comes to disciplinary actions, his administration makes recommendations and the district board makes the final decision.
Representatives at the County Office of Education and the California Teacher Association said they were not privy to how districts reviewed their teachers' performance. As the CTA's Martin put it, "Every district is its own entity."
Attempts to find answers at the state level were even less successful. After looking through her database of specialists, Tina Jung, a spokesperson in the Department of Education, said there was no one there qualified to talk about tenure. She referred the Voice to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, where a spokesperson said she too had no answers (and added that the Department of Education is always directing calls to them).
Several calls to the state Public Employment Relations Board and the California School Boards Association produced the same answer: ask the school districts. (The Association of School Administrators did not return calls as of press time.)
"We are an association," said CSBA spokesperson Brittany McKannay. "We are there to provide information for the school board."