California teacher tenure laws ruled unconstitutional

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LOS ANGELES — A California judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprive students of their right to an education under the state constitution.

The decision hands teachers’ unions a major defeat in a landmark case, one that could radically alter how California teachers are hired and fired and prompt challenges to tenure laws in other states.

“Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/​or minority students,” Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court wrote in the ruling. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

The ruling, which was enthusiastically endorsed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, brings to a close the first chapter of the case, Vergara versus California, in which a group of student plaintiffs argued that state tenure laws had deprived them of a decent education by leaving bad teachers in place.

The teachers’ unions said Tuesday that they planned to appeal. A spokesman for the state’s attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, said she was reviewing the ruling with Gov. Jerry Brown and state education officials before making a decision on any plans for an appeal.

“We believe the judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric and one of American’s finest corporate law firms that set out to scapegoat teachers for the real problems that exist in public education,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. “There are real problems in our schools, but this decision in no way helps us move the ball forward.”

In the ruling, Judge Treu agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that California’s current laws make it impossible to get rid of the system’s numerous low-performing and incompetent teachers; that seniority rules requiring the newest teachers to be laid off first were harmful; and that granting tenure to teachers after only two years on the job was farcical, offering far too little time for a fair assessment of their skills.

Further, Judge Treu said, the least effective teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools filled with low-income and minority students. The situation violates those students’ constitutional right to an equal education, he determined.

“All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,” Judge Treu wrote in his ruling. “There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.”

But lawyers for the state and teachers’ unions said overturning such laws would erode necessary protections that stop school administrators from making unfair personnel decisions. They also argued that the vast majority of teachers in the state’s schools are competent and providing students with all the necessary tools to learn. More important factors than teachers, they argued, are social and economic inequalities as well as the funding levels of public schools.

Observers on both sides expect the case to generate dozens more like it in cities and states around the nation. David Welch, a Silicon Valley technology magnate who financed the organization — Students Matter — that is largely responsible for bringing the Vergara case to court has indicated that his group is open to funding other similar legal fights, particularly in states with powerful teachers’ unions where legislatures have defeated attempts to change teacher tenure laws.

But critics of existing rules hailed the decision as a monumental victory and urged lawmakers to make immediate changes to laws. Mr. Duncan issued a statement saying the ruling could help millions of students who are hurt by existing teacher tenure laws. “My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift,” he said. “Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation.”

In essence, Judge Treu ruled that a quality education is guaranteed for all students in the state — which relies on effective teachers — and that anything less violates the equal protection clause in the state constitution.

With his ruling, the judge added his voice to the political debate that has divided educators for years. School superintendents in large cities across the country — including Los Angeles, New York and Washington — have railed against laws that essentially grant teachers permanent employment status. They say such job protections are harmful to students and are merely an anachronism. Three states and the District of Columbia have eliminated tenure, but similar efforts have repeatedly failed elsewhere, including California.

Under California state law, teachers are eligible for tenure after 18 months, and layoffs must be determined by seniority — a process known as “last in, first out.” Administrators seeking to dismiss a teacher they deem incompetent must follow a complicated procedure that typically drags on for months, if not years.

Harvard economist Raj Chetty testified in the trial that California students who miss out on a good education lose millions of dollars in potential earnings over the course of their lives. But lawyers for the state and unions dismissed the argument, saying the problems in the state’s public schools had little or nothing to do with teacher rules.

United States - North America - California - Los Angeles - Jerry Brown - California state government - Arne Duncan


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