California students sue state over teacher-protection laws

Lawsuit sponsored by advocacy group says tenure and seniority laws can keep low-quality teachers in classrooms

Second-grade students complete their work at Broadway Elementary School, part of the Los Angeles public school system, in Venice, Calif. on Jan. 31, 2013.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Nine California public school students sponsored by an advocacy group are suing the state over its laws on teacher tenure, seniority and other protections that the plaintiffs say keep bad educators in classrooms.

The lawsuit, which went to trial Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks to overturn five California statutes that set guidelines for tenure, firing and layoff practices for K-12 public school teachers, saying the rules violate the constitutional rights of students by denying them effective teachers.

Among the rules targeted by the lawsuit is one that requires school administrators to either grant or deny tenure status to teachers after the first 18 months of their employment. The suit says this causes administrators to hastily give permanent employment to potentially problematic teachers.

"The system is dysfunctional and arbitrary due to these outdated laws that handcuff school administrators," said Theodore J. Boutrous, the lead attorney on the case sponsored by the educational-reform group Students Matter.

The plaintiffs are also challenging three laws they say make it difficult to fire low-performing tenured teachers by requiring years of documentation, dozens of procedural steps and hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds before a dismissal can be carried out.

In addition, the plaintiffs want to abolish the so-called "last-in first-out" statute, which requires administrators to lay off teachers based on reverse seniority.

The group says that the layoff policy disproportionately affects minority and low-income students, who are more likely to have entry-level teachers and poor quality senior teachers assigned to their district.

"When the layoffs come, the more junior teachers are laid off first, which ends up leaving a higher proportion of what we call the ‘grossly ineffective' teachers," Boutrous said. "It's really a vicious cycle."

Opponents of the lawsuit say it ignores the larger issue of education funding problems. They say that if the suit is successful it would create an unstable system that would discourage new teachers.

"We don't think stripping teachers of their workplace professional rights will help students," said California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt.

He said Students Matter was unfairly "scapegoating teachers and teachers unions for the problems in public education."

The California Teachers Union and the California Federation of Teachers asked the court to throw out the lawsuit filed in May 2012 against the state, including the Department of Education, Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson.

Judge Rolf Treu, who will decide the case, rejected the motion to dismiss it. The nonjury trial is expected to wrap up in March.

Karen Martinez, who lives in San Jose, Calif., said her daughter Daniella – who is a plaintiff –reached the third grade unable to read before a teacher helped her.

"I'm hoping with all my heart that we win this case, so California can change a system that is clearly failing so many children," Martinez said. "To me, it's common sense: Appreciate and reward the teachers who are doing great, and hold accountable the teachers who are failing our kids."

Terry Moe, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who has researched teacher unions and their impact on public education, said there is a long way to go even in states that have adopted new laws.

"Unions can make life difficult for administrators in coming years," he said. "The political pressure on the ground is strong. It's going to be really difficult to follow through on these new laws and put a dent in teacher tenure and really do away with the role of seniority."

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