The recent anti-tenure decision by a California Superior Court judge shocked many teachers and their union leaders across the country. The court ruled that teacher job protections in that state, such as tenure, are unconstitutional because they impede students' rights to a good education.
But education reformers and many business leaders and politicians couldn't be happier. And some predicted that the case would spawn similar legal battles in other states.
Considering how poorly most of the city's schools perform, should Rochester's teachers worry about a similar legal challenge? And what does the California case, which is going to be appealed, mean for New York?
"I think every state is vulnerable, but there are degrees of vulnerability," says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association.
Tenure legislation is not the same in every state, he says, and some states, including New York, have been making adjustments to the law.
"My hope is that the net effect of all of this will be continued improvements in tenure laws, not elimination of tenure," Urbanski says.
He says he supports finding ways to reduce the time and cost to deny tenure and to dismiss ineffective teachers.
Urbanski, like many labor leaders who have looked at the California case, says that the court ignored the impact of poverty and inadequate school funding on student performance.
And he says that wealthy business leaders are funding legal fights, including the one in California, to reduce the influence of unions, and to further their own agenda for privatization of public education.
Both Urbanski and Rochester Superintendent Bolgen Vargas say there's a lot of confusion about tenure. While both support it, they have different views on the problems with tenure and what to do about those problems.
Urbanski says the public tends to believe that tenure guarantees a job for life, but in reality, he says, "it's only a guard against unfair and arbitrary treatment by school administrators."
And Rochester's system of peer mentoring and review is designed to identify teacher effectiveness problems early — before tenure is even an option, Urbanski says.
Vargas firmly believes, however, that tenure has to be earned for doing an exceptional job; that it shouldn't be awarded based on time served or meeting minimum standards. He says that tenure can inhibit the flexibility needed to manage an organization such as the city school district, particularly when it comes to turning around poorly performing schools.
"I personally do believe we need to revisit tenure and adjust it to meet the needs of the current times," Vargas says. "There was a time when a teacher could get fired for becoming pregnant, school board members could hire their friends and relatives, or a teacher could get fired because of their sexual orientation."
State and federal laws have reduced those problems, he says.
But Vargas says the biggest challenge with worker protection laws has more to do with the district's culture than with the laws themselves. He says there's an inherent contradiction with tenure because the district's culture doesn't include an incentive for denying it. That would involve holding people at all levels accountable to a higher standard, he says.
And tenure tends to be incorrectly perceived as an issue solely with teachers, he says. Management tenure needs adjustment, too, Vargas says; accountability starts at the top.
In his roughly two years on the job, Vargas has denied tenure to 12 administrators — more than any of his recent predecessors. And he's only approved tenure for 75 administrators, considerably fewer than former superintendents Manny Rivera or Jean-Claude Brizard.
That has fueled tension between Vargas and district administrators. A fairly public confrontation with the Association of Supervisors and Administrators of Rochester, the union that represents principals and school administrators, underscores that point.
Earlier this year, ASAR members voted "no confidence" in Vargas as superintendent of Rochester's schools.