A protracted legal battle over state laws governing tenure and the firing of teachers will return to a Los Angeles courtroom Wednesday, as an appeals court hears arguments over a judge’s ruling that the laws are unconstitutional.
In June 2014, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu struck down the laws, saying students and educators alike are “disadvantaged” by the statutes. 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.
“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.
The ruling was a major blow to teachers unions, which contend the ruling will actually harm students and educators. They argue that the laws governing tenure ensure that quality teachers are in classrooms.
The lawsuit, known as Vergara v. California, was filed in May 2012 by an advocacy group called Students Matter 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 California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Theodore Boutrous argued during the Superior Court 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.
The head of the American Federation of Teachers said the judge’s decision was not unexpected, but said Treu ignored other factors such as funding inequities, segregation and poverty that impact student achievement.
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.
Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias argued during the trial that 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.”
—Staff and wire reports
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