Judge strikes down California teacher tenure

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge struck down tenure and other
job protections for California’s public school teachers as
unconstitutional Tuesday, saying such laws harm students — especially
poor and minority ones — by saddling them with bad teachers who are
almost impossible to fire.
In a landmark decision that could
influence the gathering debate over tenure across the country, Los
Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu cited the historic case of
Brown v. Board of Education in ruling that students have a fundamental
right to equal education.
Siding with the nine students who
brought the lawsuit, he ruled that California’s laws on hiring and
firing in schools have resulted in "a significant number of grossly
ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms."
He
agreed, too, that a disproportionate number of these teachers are in
schools that have mostly minority and low-income students.
The judge stayed the ruling pending appeals. The case involves 6 million students from kindergarten
through 12th grade.
The
California Attorney General’s office said it is considering its legal
options, while the California Teachers Association, the state’s biggest
teachers union with 325,000 members, vowed an appeal.
"Circumventing
the legislative process to strip teachers of their professional rights
hurts our students and our schools," the union said.
Teachers have
long argued that tenure prevents administrators from firing teachers on
a whim. They contend also that the system preserves academic freedom
and helps attract talented teachers to a profession that doesn’t pay
well.
Other states have been paying close attention to how the case plays out in the nation’s most populous
state.
"It’s
powerful," said Theodore Boutrous Jr., the students’ attorney. "It’s a
landmark decision that can change the face of education in California
and nationally."
He added: "This is going to be a huge template for what’s wrong with education."
The
lawsuit was backed by wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch’s
nonprofit group Students Matter, which assembled a high-profile legal
team including Boutrous, who successfully fought to overturn
California’s gay-marriage ban.
In an interview following the
decision, Welch tried to open a door to working with teachers’ unions,
but the enmity of the two sides intensified.
"Inherently it is not
a battle with the teachers union. It’s a battle with the education
system," Welch said. "Unfortunately, the teachers union has decided that
the rights of children are not their priority."
He said he hoped
union leaders can eventually work with his group to put in place a
system that ensures children get a better education.
But the unions were having none of it.
Dennis
Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the
nation’s biggest teachers union, bitterly criticized the lawsuit as "yet
another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to
undermine the teaching profession" and privatize public education.
They vowed to appeal the ruling for as long as necessary to overturn it.
The
judge declined to tell the Legislature exactly how to change the
system, but expressed confidence it will do so in a way that passes
constitutional muster and provides "each child in this state with a
basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education."
The
lawsuit contended that incompetent teachers are so heavily protected by
tenure laws that they are almost impossible to fire. The plaintiffs also
charged that schools in poor neighborhoods are used as dumping grounds
for bad teachers.
In striking down several laws regarding tenure,
seniority and other protections, the judge said there was compelling
evidence of the harm inflicted on students by incompetent teachers.
"Indeed, it shocks the conscience," Treu said.
He
cited an expert’s finding that a single year with a grossly ineffective
teacher costs a student $50,000 in potential lifetime earnings.
California
teachers receive tenure after just two years, sooner than in virtually
any other state. If a school district moves to fire a tenured teacher
and the educator puts up a fight, it triggers a long, drawn-out process,
including a trial-like hearing and appeals.
Los Angeles School
Superintendent John Deasy testified it can take over two years on
average — and sometimes as long as 10 — to fire an incompetent tenured
teacher. The cost, he said, can run from $250,000 to $450,000.
In
his ruling, the judge, a Republican appointee to the bench, said the
procedure under the law for firing teachers is "so complex,
time-consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair
dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory."
The judge
also took issue with laws that say the last-hired teacher must be the
first fired when layoffs occur — even if the new teacher is gifted and
the veteran is inept.
The case was brought by a group of students
who said they were stuck with teachers who let classrooms get out of
control, came to school unprepared and in some cases told them they’d
never make anything of themselves.
"Being a kid, sometimes it’s
easy to feel like your voice is not heard. Today, I am glad I did not
stay quiet," said one of the students, Julia Macias. "I’m glad that with
the support of my parents I was able to stand up for my right to a
great education."
The trial represented the latest battle in a
nationwide movement to abolish or toughen the standards for granting
teachers permanent employment protection and seniority-based preferences
during layoffs.
Dozens of states have moved in recent years to get rid of such protections or raise the standards for
obtaining them.
U.S.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed the judge’s ruling as a chance
for schools everywhere to open a conversation on equal opportunity in
education.
"The students who brought this lawsuit are,
unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who
are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify
and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest
students," he said. "Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these
problems."