Vergara and a Gathering of Stories

Vergara and a Gathering of Stories

The track of court decisions in Vergara v. California (2014) has highlighted the thorny issue of state laws governing teacher tenure.  A group of parents brought suit against the state, arguing that tenure laws ensured the retention of ineffective teachers.  They argued that these inferior teachers were often assigned to marginalized students, thus providing those children with an inferior education.  Ruling for the plaintiffs, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu noted, 

“The evidence (is) clear that the churning (aka ‘Dance of the Lemons’) of teachers caused by the lack of effective dismissal statutes . . . affect high-poverty and minority students disproportionately.  This is turn, greatly affects the stability of the learning process to the detriment of such students”  (Vergara v. California, et al, 2014, p. 15).

The decision was recently overturned by the California Second Circuit Court of Appeals (2016), which ruled the plaintiffs failed to prove that the tenure laws in themselves created teacher assignments.  A state Supreme Court majority recently declined to hear the case, allowing the Circuit Court ruling to stand  As I note separately, my point is not to analyze, attack, or defend the California courts’ decisions, but to consider the growing societal awareness of issues of oppression, vulnerability, and social justice affecting students who are most threatened and least served.  Concomitantly, it may be fair and prudent to expand the discussion to accounts of abuses of power by principals over teachers and others under their charge.

By definition, the study of ethical dilemmas in school administration addresses issues that are often controversial and may be viewed through two or more ethical prisms or points of view.  Few topics are more controversial, emotional, and potentially life-changing for all parties than those involving the administrative censure of teachers. Many administrators believe that contractual strictures governing teacher tenure and dismissal procedures often work to protect those teachers distinguished by their length of employment, rather than the quality of service to their students.  Defenders of those rules, most staunchly teacher unions, argue that those regulations are placed to protect teachers from abuses of power by the principal. 

Researchers as diverse as Blasé and Blasé (2002), Flessas (2009) Malen (1994), and Sergiovanni (2009) have written extensively about abuses of power, authority, and the dilemmas of moral leadership within individual relationships between school leaders and teachers.  One of my favorite statements describing the dilemmas of educational leadership comes from Foster (1986), who observed, “Each administrative decision carries with it a restructuring of human life: that is why administration at its heart is the resolution of moral dilemmas.”

In an earlier post I briefly discuss my experience in navigating issues of justice, critique, care, and the profession in working with two specific teachers.  Those particular teachers were experiencing their own traumatic personal problems that adversely affected and ultimately sabotaged their ability to teach.  Moves to censure and ultimately dismiss teachers in these situations are emotionally wrenching for the principal, as well as the teachers themselves.  The most vulnerable victims of such events, however, are the students whom we all are bound to serve.

Stories, of course, are told from different views.  I invite similar stories from varied perspectives.  These include stories of principals working with marginal teachers, as well as accounts of teachers suffering from administrative abuses of power.  Through our stories we learn, we grow, and we build better structures through which our students can thrive.  I encourage your response!

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