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What happens when students sue their teachers?

With a landmark ruling in June, the campaign against the sacred cow of education has just begun

In June, Christine McLaughlin, who had been named Pasadena’s Teacher of the Year in 2013, found her work on trial.

She was caught in the crosshairs of a case that would rock decades of tradition in California schools. The nine student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California charged that the system deprived them of a decent education by leaving incompetent teachers in place.

And McLaughlin, a seventh grade English teacher, was Exhibit A. One of her former students, 16-year-old Raylene Monterroza, testified that her education was harmed because McLaughlin was so bad at her job.

Award-winning teacher Christine McLaughlin spoke with correspondent Michael Okwu over Skype about her featured role in Vergara v. California.
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In a Skype interview, McLaughlin summarized her take on the student’s testimony: “I wasn’t the best teacher but I wasn’t the worst. Said I never assigned homework. We never read any novels. I had no textbook, no syllabus.”

All of that, she said, “is absolutely not true.”

McLaughlin added that a teacher’s quality can’t be measured by one student’s impression at a particular moment in time.

“The thing I have to hold onto is that the product that we produce in schools is so unlike any other product,” she said. “It isn’t always visible from start to finish. It takes a long time to see growth.”

In June, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled in the students’ favor, concluding that California’s teacher tenure and seniority laws were unconstitutional, depriving kids – especially poor and minority children – of their rights.

He was persuaded by evidence that firing a bad teacher took anywhere from two to 10 years, at a cost of $50,000 to $450,000 – tying the hands of administrators. And because the worst teachers often get dumped in poor schools with the highest turnover, the damage to low-income children is particularly acute.

The judge compared the case to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

“The evidence is compelling,” he wrote. “Indeed it shocks the conscience.”

The way we fire

Silicon Valley millionaire entrepreneur David Welch is the one who dreamed up the novel approach of using students to sue their schools. He founded the nonprofit Students Matter, which is focused on overturning state laws that keep subpar teachers from being identified and fired, and has spent millions of dollars to achieve that goal.

“I said, ‘You know, what’s happening to these children is a crime,’” explained Welch. “And if it’s really a crime, then it’s got to be illegal.”

Welch’s group is considering filing lawsuits in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho, Kansas and other states where powerful unions have defeated attempts to change tenure laws.

David Welch, an entrepreneur in the field of fiber optic communications, founded Students Matter in 2011 to take on teacher tenure.
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“My premise is it’s never acceptable to knowingly put an ineffective teacher in front of a child,” he said. “The education system is about one thing, right? It’s about educating our children.”

John Deasy, superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District, testified for the plaintiffs. One of the practices they challenged, which the judge declared unconstitutional, was giving teachers tenure less than two years after they start teaching.

“Would you fly a plane if the pilot had five flights? I certainly wouldn’t,” he said. “You’re not reading by the third grade, your life chances are in grave peril. This is dead serious stuff.”

The ruling against tenure was a major defeat for the teachers’ unions. Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, described it is an attack on teachers themselves.

“I think this trial was about creating an atmosphere that sees teachers and teacher’s rights as an obstacle to providing quality public education,” he said. “The Vergara case won’t put an additional pencil in a child’s hand. It won’t put an additional textbook… The notion that we’re going to create an education reform model based on the way we fire teachers I think is just ludicrous.”

Pechthalt added that it makes sense that tenure would be given in a short period of time.

“If you have somebody working with your child, do you want to give them more time or less time to determine whether they should be with your child?” he said. “And I would rather give them less time. Frankly I’d be good with one year.”

Incompetent teachers

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But even the unions acknowledge that there are incompetent teachers – thousands of them. They presented evidence in court that 1 to 3 percent of teachers are “grossly ineffective.”

“There are 275,000 teachers per annum in the state of California. Of the 275,000 how many do you think are actually dismissed per year for poor performance?” said Marcellus McRae, attorney for the plaintiffs. “The number is 2.2. Not percent. Two-point-two, as in two people,” he said.

And according to Welch’s math, a classroom of 28 kids exposed to an ineffective teacher for one year will lose out on $1.4 million in lifetime salary.

The unions plan to appeal. But the plaintiffs vow they will take the Vergara case to the California Supreme Court, if necessary. While the case slowly winds its way through the legal system, the current tenure laws stay in effect.

“I don’t expect to see [the process end] during my career,” Superintendent Deasy said. “If we think the schools are integrated from Brown v. Board of Education, I rest my case. There’s decades, decades. This appeals process will go on for years and years and years.”

And none of these deliberations and judgments will resolve the fundamental question of how to decide who’s a good or bad teacher.

When McLaughlin’s teaching was under scrutiny in court, the unions played a complimentary video in her defense. 

“My favorite thing about Miss McLaughlin is how determined she is to make sure we learn something new every day,” one girl tells the camera.

“She just strives for greatness,” a boy adds. “And she just wants to help her students, and wants us to grow up and be better learners in life and achieve great things.”

After watching, Monterroza said on the stand that it upset her “to know that what the students were saying in the video was a completely different experience than I had in her class.”

Asked whether McLaughlin was a “grossly ineffective” teacher, Monterroza replied no.

“Because I did learn some things in her class,” she said.

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