If Tenure Laws Are Struck Down, Would Teacher Pay Go Up?

It would be an understatement to say that the June decision in Vergara v. State of California has been highly controversial.

California superior court overturned state teacher tenure rules, saying they violated California’s constitution by depriving disadvantaged, mostly minority, students of an education equal to that afforded schools with higher-income students.

Many have characterized Vergara as the conservative version of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 struck down racially segregated schools as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The impact could be revolutionary.

Vergara has been appealed by Gov. Jerry Brown and by state teachers’ associations; its fate rests in California’s higher courts. But the rationale behind the June decision almost certainly will lead to constitutional challenges in other states.

Research by my Brookings colleague Mark Dynarski suggests that any potential plaintiffs will have to choose carefully where to file suit, because although teachers in schools with large concentrations of low-income students tend to be less experienced than teachers in other schools, their effectiveness does not, on average, significantly lag teachers in more affluent schools. But Mr. Dynarksi also reports on studies showing large variations among school districts in the difference in teacher effectiveness between schools with less and more affluent students, which could augur well for potential plaintiffs in poorly performing districts.

If Vergara is upheld on appeal and courts in other states adopt a similar ruling, one implication that I have not seen much discussed concerns the impact on teacher salaries. If tenure rules are struck down or weakened, teaching would look much more like private-sector jobs, where the risks of layoffs and pay for performance are routine. Higher risk in teaching would require localities and states to increase teacher salaries on average if taxpayers want to preserve or, ideally, enhance student outcomes. Furthermore, it may be necessary economically and, ultimately, legally to pay teachers who work in less affluent schools more in order to attract the better instructors who can ensure more equal student outcomes.

Faced with these possible financial pressures, school districts affected byVergara­­­-type rulings are likely to turn first to cutting central overhead to fund higher teacher pay. Ultimately, higher pay may require higher local taxes. Would taxpayers be willing to step up to help assure more equal outcomes? If they don’t, might liberals who now may be opposing Vergara then use its reasoning to argue that higher taxes to fund education are constitutionally necessary to ensure that low-income or minority students are not deprived of equal protection under the law?

Given concerns over growing income inequality, the answers to these questions could have large and lasting consequences for our economy and society. Even if Vergara is overturned on appeal and other state courts do not follow its reasoning, we still face the challenge of providing more equitable education to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in many areas of the country.