By Alexander Saeedy
Alexander Saeedy is a rising senior at Yale University studying History.
Teachers' unions have had a rough few years in the public eye. In the face of sinking international rankings in education, America wants to know: how did our schools get to be so bad? There are the usual suspects. American taxes don't allocate enough money to public education. The remains of post-Brown v. Board of Education segregation give disproportionate attention to students from privileged, generally white, backgrounds. But for critics on the right, it has everything to do with organized labor. Teachers' unions, the argument goes, have stopped schools from keeping standards as high as they should be.
Teachers' unions are well-known guardians of their employees. In America, there are two big players: the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Since 1989, the NEA and AFT have donated $67,776,328 to federal candidates and political parties . The combined contributions of all American teachers’ unions in the 2008 election cycle was $68,955,160 .
These groups are large and influential. And, when anti-union activists try to sweep the rug from under their feet, it's more than just a small group of grassroots advocates that they're up against; it's a massive network of politicians, activists, and lobbyists. While not demonizing unions, it is important to grasp their clout in American politics.
Tenure has been the NEA and AFT's biggest point of criticism. It gives a guarantee of life-long employment after a period of employment at a school, varying from 18 months to 5 years, and is a proud point for nearly all teachers' unions. But in Vergara v. California, which concluded its final testimonies on March 27th, nine public school students filed to strike down tenure and five other teacher protection statures from California educational law.
Removing a teacher after he or she has been given tenure is nearly impossible, according to Students Matter, a nonprofit that is sponsoring the lawsuit. Moreover, Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., head attorney for the plaintiffs, asserts that tenure statutes are costing Californians too much money and are squandering chances of success . If a school feels that a teacher isn't providing their students with an optimal education, they should be out the door. These are young American minds—how can we let unions stand in the way of progress? As Ted Olson, another representative for Students Matter, stated at the National Summit for Education Reform, tenure laws “exacerbate the achievement gap that education is supposed to serve" .
But let’s think carefully. Students Matter’s attorneys have often cited a figure from the National Center for Education Statistics, which tells us that for a given school district of 187 teachers, 3.5 teachers would be dismissed in a given year. And of these teachers, only one would be dismissed for poor performance .
At first glance, the data is shocking. America continues to slump in international education rankings, studies show that better teaching leads to a more financially secure life, and yet we’re content to keep mediocrity in schools? 
We should be very hesitant to follow this line of logic. Would we really be happy that if for every 187 teachers, 43 were fired in a given year? What if it was 67? How many teachers do we have to fire to be happy? The problem of tenure, like many problems in education, doesn’t have a quantitative answer.
However, it stands unquestionably in the California constitution that its students have a right to quality education. If the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California win, legal experts expect a slew of litigation to come out against states, like Minnesota, New Jersey, and West Virginia, where law requires that seniority be factored into layoff decisions. Already, there’s change in the wind—in 2009, no states required that performance be a factor in tenure eligibility; by 2012, eight states had instituted performance evaluations by law into tenure evaluations .
But if this all has to do with keeping good teachers in and bad teachers out of American schools, we should ask ourselves: how can we evaluate what makes for a "good" teacher? It proves to be a gray line. But if America wants to stay committed to the best in culture, politics, and innovation, policy makers need to seriously rethink their current approach to public education. Tenure and teacher-protection statutes might be one way to start thinking about this question. But there seems to be an obvious problem. We are more than content to criticize American public education, but, when it comes to the question of giving more taxpayer dollars to our schools, Americans have been historically mute.
 American Federation For Children. “Industry Influence: Teachers’ Unions in the American Political System.” Federationforchildren.com. Web, 19 April 2014. http://www.federationforchildren.org/system/uploads/171/original/Union_Factsheet.pdf?1318865110
 Crotty, James Marshall. “Vergara V. California Lawsuit Targeting Teacher Tenure Could Revolutionize U.S. Public Education, For Better And Worse.” Forbes. Forbes.com. 31 March 2014. Web, 19 April 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmarshallcrotty/2014/03/31/vergara-v-california-lawsuit-targeting-teacher-tenure-could-revolutionize-u-s-public-education-for-better-and-worse
 Olson, Ted. “Highlight from Keynote Lunch with Ted Olson and Condoleezza Rice at #EIE13.” YouTube video, 0:49. Posted by ExcelinEd. 17 Oct 2013. Web, 23 April 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSNPjzbIexo.
 National Center for Education Statistics. “Schools and Staffing Surveys, 2011-2012: Table 8.” Web, 19 April 2014. http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/tables/sass1112_2013311_d1s_008.asp.
 Chetty, Raj, John N. Friedman and Jonah E. Rockoff. “The Long Term Impact of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood.” Harvard University. April 2014. Web, 19 April 2014. http://obs.rc.fas.harvard.edu/chetty/value_added.html.
 Associated Press. “States weaken tenure rights for teachers.” USA Today. USAToday.com. 25 January 2012. Web, 23 April 2014. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2012-01-25/teacher-tenure-rights-firings/52772354/1
Photo Credit: Flickr user Adam DeClercq