LOS ANGELES: A first-of-its-kind court ruling that concluded California’s union-backed teacher tenure, layoff and dismissal laws infringe on students’ rights to an equal public education adds fire to a debate over whether the job protections afforded professional educators are partly to blame for what ails the nation’s schools, experts said.
A judge in Los Angeles on Tuesday sided with nine students who sued to overturn the state statutes governing teacher hiring and firing, saying they served no compelling purpose and have led to an unfair system that drove excellent new teachers from the classroom too soon while allowing incompetent senior ones to remain.
The practices harm students in a way that “shocks the conscience” and have “a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students,” Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said in striking down the five laws as violations of the California Constitution.
Similar civil rights arguments have been made in the past to challenge school desegregation and recently to contest inequities in school funding, but the California decision marks the first time that a court has declared teacher tenure and related job guarantees unconstitutional, said William Koski, director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University.
“Nationally, this debate has been going on in state legislatures and state policy circles for a long time,” Koski said. “What has happened here is the reformers have decided that change isn’t happening fast enough through the Legislature, and this does provide a template for how to bring this type of litigation and maybe get the courts to join the conversation.”
The judge stayed his decision to allow for appeals that are likely to reach the California Supreme Court. If upheld, it would not directly affect laws in New York, Minnesota, Pennsylvania or eight other states that like California base budget-related teacher layoffs solely on classroom seniority or in the six other states where tenure drives the decisions about which teachers are let go.
But given California’s size and the historical strength of its teacher unions, experts said it would nonetheless fuel legislative debates, if not more litigation, over how teachers are evaluated, rewarded, retained and terminated. If that happens, it will be with the support of the Obama administration, which has encouraged states to make student test scores a feature of teacher evaluations.
“My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation.”
Russlynn Ali, a former U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights who was appointed by President Barack Obama, said the decision intensifies pressure on the unions and, in California, their Democratic allies to start working on reforms without waiting for the case to conclude.
Ali serves as an adviser to Students Matter, the nonprofit group founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch that spearheaded and financed the students’ lawsuit.
Teachers have long argued that generous job protections help attract talented teachers to a profession that doesn’t pay well and that experienced teachers are best-equipped to help students learn.
National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel called Treu’s decision “deeply flawed” and predicted it would make it more difficult to retain quality teachers.