By Mina Kim
and Lisa Pickoff-White
Opening arguments began Monday in Los Angeles in a lawsuit challenging California’s rules on how and when a teacher should be fired. The suit by Silicon Valley-based Students Matter argues that the state’s tenure and seniority laws saddle students with ineffective teachers.
Attorneys for the governor, the state Department of Education and teachers’ unions say the laws help attract and retain quality teachers.
Students from Oakland, San Jose and San Carlos are among the nine plaintiffs who contest that assertion.
The trial, which is being heard by L.A. Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu without a jury, is the latest battle in a nationwide trend. Dozens of states have moved in recent years to abolish or toughen the standards around giving teachers permanent employment protection and seniority-based preferences during layoffs.
Students Matter hired attorneys Ted Boutrous and Ted Olson, who helped overturn Prop. 8. The group’s complaint argues that poor and minority students in California are being denied their right under the state Constitution to equal access to public education because they are more likely than affluent white students to be taught by “grossly ineffective” teachers.
Stanford Law School Professor Bill Koski says proving that argument hinges on whether the attorneys can link the laws to student underperformance.
“The fundamental argument that they’re trying to make is that the conspiracy between tenure laws, teacher dismissal laws and teacher layoff laws have worked together to deny certain children their fundamental right to an education,” Koski said. “What they would have to prove is that these laws actually do work to tie the hands of administrators in ways that cause them to keep underperforming teachers in the classroom. That these teachers in turn create underperformance among the students. And also that students who suffer from these teachers are denied that fundamental right to an education.”
Boutrous said he will present experts and studies showing that achievements in later life can be measured by interactions with good teachers. One study showed that students taught by ineffective teachers had their lifetime income reduced by $2 million, Boutrous said.
But the unions say eliminating such laws would erase a vital support system for a profession that is already losing talented people to higher-paid positions in the private sector.
Boutrous said the granting of tenure, which amounts to lifetime employment protection, after 18 months on the job is inadequate to guard against accepting unqualified teachers. He said there are 275,000 teachers in California, but under the current rules the state dismisses just 10 teachers a year for being ineffective in their jobs.
Lawyers for the state and unions countered that most teachers targeted by such claims usually resign before dismissal is necessary.
Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias told Judge Treu that 18 months is more than enough time to identify teachers who are “the worst of the worst.” He and attorney James Finberg, representing the teachers’ unions, said the guarantees of tenure, seniority and other benefits are necessary to keep teachers in the low-paying jobs.
“Our schools struggle to retain teachers,” he said, noting the challenge is greatest in high-crime areas.
The state and unions have a compelling argument that it’s not the laws that are hampering students’ eduction, but the fact that schools are starved of resources, Koski said.
This post contains reporting from the Associated Press.