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Should California Teachers Get Tenure? Judge Says No As He Strikes Down State Laws

Students Matter, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit group founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, sponsored the lawsuit filed in 2012. Plus a Q & A on the issue with Stanford experts.

In a major blow to teachers' unions, a Los Angeles judge ruled Tuesday that state laws governing tenure and the firing of teachers are unconstitutional, saying students and educators alike are "disadvantaged" by the statutes.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu issued an injunction blocking tenure laws for public school teachers, but also placed a stay on the ruling pending an appeal.

"This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason — let alone a compelling one — disadvantaged by the current permanent employment statute," the judge wrote in his 16-page ruling.

Treu noted that teachers have a right to due process when they are being targeted for dismissal.

[Related: Q&A With Stanford Experts on Teacher-Tenure Laws.]

"However, based on the evidence before this court, it finds the current system required by the dismissal statutes to be so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory," he wrote.

Suit's Bay Area Roots

The lawsuit was filed in May 2012 by an advocacy group called Students Matter–  a Menlo Park-based nonprofit group founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch– on behalf of nine young plaintiffs, alleging the laws violate students' constitutional rights to an equal education. 

The suit named the state and two teacher unions that later intervened as defendants, the Burlingame-based California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

Welch said Tuesday: 

"I believe in public education...But I also believe our public education system is failing our children because it has stopped putting their needs and their success above all else." 

Treu issued an injunction barring enforcement of the laws, but suspended it to give the state and two teachers' unions a chance to appeal. 

The two unions vowed to appeal. 

"Like the lawsuit itself, today's ruling is deeply flawed. This lawsuit has nothing to do with what's best for kids," said CTA President Dean Vogel.

Arguments

Plaintiffs' attorney Theodore Boutrous argued during the trial that five laws should be deemed unconstitutional, saying tenure and other laws made it too time-consuming and expensive to dismiss ineffective educators.     

"Teaching is the one profession in the world where you cannot tell a person they are not doing a good job," he said during his closing argument.

But lawyer James Finberg, representing the teacher unions, countered that the laws help prevent teachers from being hired and retained for reasons involving favoritism and politics. He said that in as little as three months, an administrator can make a "well-informed decision" as to whether a probationary teacher should be retained.

"The statutes should not be struck down on the basis of a handful of anecdotes," Finberg said.

Reaction to Ruling

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, condemned the ruling.

"We are clearly disappointed by the decision of this judge," he said. "We're disappointed, but not particularly surprised, given his comments during the trial. We believe the judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric of one of America's finest corporate law firms."

The head of the American Federation of Teachers also said the decision was not unexpected, but said the judge ignored other factors such as funding inequities, segregation and poverty that impact student achievement.

"We must lift up solutions that speak to these factors -- solutions like wraparound services, early childhood education and project-based learning," AFT President Randi Weingarten said. "Sadly, there is nothing in this opinion that suggests a thoughtful analysis of how these statutes should work. There is very little that lays groundwork for a path forward."

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president-elect of United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing Los Angeles Unified School District teachers, also blasted the decision.

"This decision today is an attack on teachers, which is a socially acceptable way to attack students," he told Los Angeles News Station ABC7.

Boutrous, however, hailed the decision as a "monumental day for California's public education system."

"By striking down these irrational laws, the court has recognized that all students deserve a quality education," he said. "Today's ruling is a victory not only for our nine plaintiffs, it is a victory for students, parents and teachers across California."

One of the lawsuit plaintiffs, high school freshman Julia Macias, said the ruling "means that kids like me will have a real chance to get a great education and succeed in life."

"With this case, we have shown that students have a voice and can demand change when we stand together," she said.

Finberg, the unions' attorney, argued during the trial that the plaintiffs based much of their arguments on teacher tenure histories in Los Angeles and Oakland and did not take into sufficient consideration how teacher performances are overseen in the more than 1,000 other districts statewide.

Finberg pointed to testimony of former El Monte Union High School District Superintendent Jeff Seymour, who said new teachers are carefully screened by administrators to ensure they are meeting the proper standards.

In his Jan. 27 opening statement, Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias said the laws protecting teacher tenure help school districts statewide attract educators who might otherwise be dissuaded by what they may consider low pay and difficult working conditions.

Elias said there is no evidence of a connection between the laws and the poor academic performances by students at some poor and minority schools.

In his ruling, Treu wrote that the plaintiffs proved that the tenure statutes "impose a real and appreciable impact on students' fundamental right to equality of education and that they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students."

Treu also lambasted rules relating to seniority and teacher layoffs, known as "last-in, first-out,"

"The last-hired teacher is the statutorily mandated first-fired one when layoffs occur," the judge wrote. "No matter how gifted the junior teacher, and no matter how grossly ineffective the senior teacher, the junior gifted one, who all parties agree is creating a positive atmosphere for his/her students, is separated from them and a senior grossly ineffective one who all parties agree is harming the students entrusted to her/him is left in place.

"The result is a classroom disruption on two fronts, a lose-lose situation. Contrast this to the junior/efficient teacher remaining and a senior/incompetent teacher being removed, a win-win situation, and the point is clear."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said he feared the ruling will make it more difficult to attract and retain talented teachers.

"While I have no jurisdiction over the statutes challenged in the case, I am always ready to assist the Legislature and governor in their work to provide high-quality teachers for all of our students," he said. "Teachers are not the problem in our schools, they are the solution."

 
– City News Service and Bay City News Service contributed to this report.
James Thurber June 12, 2014 at 09:26 AM
It seems a giant can of worms has been opened. You're welcome to toss tenure but please, do not get rid of basic due process. I've worked for too many folks who think due process belongs somewhere else and NOT in the teaching profession.
Los Altos Resident June 12, 2014 at 10:40 AM
It's about time! Being parents in Los Altos, a district considered one of the top in CA, we have seen utterly underperforming teachers cruising along just because they think they are "safe". Think about our children, please!
sweetcakes June 12, 2014 at 11:02 AM
I don't agree with Los Altos resident. Most of the under performing students don't do their work and disrupt the class for the other kids that do their work. Most parents don't want to be bothered making sure their kids do their home work and study for their tests. I have seen this time after time. This is just another attack on teachers and I wonder if this attack is only against elementary, middle school and high school teachers. Is the suit attacking college teachers? It should because there are just as many "bad' teachers in college as anywhere else.

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