BY LINDA DEUTSCH AP Special Correspondent
LOS ANGELES -- 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.
Excerpts from California teacher tenure ruling
LOS ANGELES -- Excerpts from Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu's ruling Tuesday that five California laws governing teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissals are unconstitutional:
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. All sides also agree that grossly ineffective teachers substantially undermine the ability of that child to succeed in school. Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience .... . There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.
Plaintiffs have proven, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the challenged 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.
(T)he Permanent Employment Statute does not provide nearly enough time for an informed decision to be made regarding the decision of tenure (critical for both students and teachers.) As a result, teachers are being re-elected who would not have been had more time been provided for the process .... 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.
There is no question that teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought. 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.
The last-hired teacher is the statutorily-mandated first-fired one when lay-offs occur. 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 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.
Ruling ‘could definitely affect’ local teachers
Lauri Heffernan, president of the Panama-Buena Vista Teachers Association, said Tuesday’s Los Angeles County Superior Court ruling “could definitely affect” hiring and firing decisions locally.
She said common practice for districts forced to make staff cuts is to start with the employees last hired.
Teachers fight district representatives “all the time” in contract negotiations about when it is appropriate to use seniority as a criteria.
Heffernan said adding “arbitrary and capricious” factors like standardized test scores to measures of teacher effectiveness is a danger to teachers’ due process and a potential harm to students.
“It’s not a victory for the children or the teachers of our state,” Heffernan said.
Robert Meszaros, spokesman for Kern County Superintendent of Schools, wrote in an email Tuesday that the KCSOS office “applauds” the ruling because the process for removing poor-performing teachers has, in some instances, become “quite challenging.”
“Like any business or organization, school districts need the ability to reward high performers and to remove, with due process, poor performing teachers,” Meszaros wrote.
He said KCSOS Superintendent Christine Frazier does not believe this is a major issue in Kern County and there will be no immediate changes to policy or practice regarding how teachers are hired or fired.
— Californian staff writer Lauren Foreman
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 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 the 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 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.
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.
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."