Glenn Hamer

I don’t often find occasion to praise California for its game-changing reforms. However, a California Superior Court judge last week achieved game-changer status when he threw out the state’s teacher tenure laws, holding that they violate the state constitution. If upheld, this case will allow California schools to retain teachers based on their ability rather than seniority, and dramatically changes the conversation about education in the United States by equating quality with equality.

The case, deservedly, is attracting national attention.

The facts of Vergara v. California are frank and troubling. A group of students alleged they were denied access to a quality education because California’s tenure laws required even “grossly ineffective” teachers to be retained. These teachers were disproportionately placed in schools with predominately low-income, minority student populations. In other words, the neediest students received the least effective instruction. I may be a non-practicing lawyer, but this sounds tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment to me.

Judge Rolf Treu based his ruling on the premise that access to public education is a fundamental right. We know this; Brown v. Board of Education confirmed it 60 years ago, our state Constitution guarantees it, and our compulsory attendance laws and significant education spending reinforce this.

But Vergara finds that supplying kids with a school building and instruction is not sufficient; we must do everything in our power to ensure every child has access to a high-quality education.

We know that quality teachers have an enormous impact on a child’s life. And a growing body of research indicates that an ineffective teacher can have an equally powerful, negative impact on students. Evidence introduced in the Vergara case “shocks the conscience,” as Judge Treu put it, by demonstrating that students in Los Angeles Unified School who were taught by a teacher in the bottom 5 percent of competence lost 9.5 months of learning over the course of the year.

In Arizona, the Chamber is all in to advance policies that provide A-level instruction to every Arizona student, regardless of income.

The Arizona Chamber, in partnership with the Tucson Hispanic Chamber and led by education all-star reformer Lisa Graham Keegan, is engaged in an effort to rapidly expand access to A-level public schools.

We’re focused on attracting and retaining the highest quality teachers in the country to teach Arizona students. This means higher salaries for proven, high-performing teachers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: to sign a first round draft pick, teams have to open up their wallets. To land a great teacher, we have to be prepared to pay them what they’re worth.

We’re looking at innovative new ways to pay for this. Our schools currently spend hundreds of millions of dollars on interest payments, because of the clunky capital financing system that exists in Arizona. States like Texas and Colorado have implemented smart new financing mechanisms that, if adapted for Arizona’s needs, could save our schools millions. With limited tax dollars available, wouldn’t we rather see that money invested in talent than in interest payments?

So congratulations to California for opening the door to providing a quality education for all students. Here in Arizona, we continue to look for innovative ways to ensure that every child has access to the highest quality education imaginable.

Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.