Ruling says teacher job protections cost poorest students

naustin@modbee.comJune 10, 2014 

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ruled that California laws mandating seniority-based layoffs and tenure rights deny poor children an equal education, a landmark ruling the state’s powerful education lobby already has vowed to appeal.

The ruling came Tuesday morning in the Vergara v. California lawsuit, filed in May 2012 on behalf of nine public school students, including sisters Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, who attend schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The lawsuit asked the court to strike down five state statutes that complicate dismissal procedures, grant tenure after 18 months and mandate seniority-based layoffs.

The complaint focused on the effect of state mandates on high-poverty schools, claiming the practical effect of these rules was to load these campuses with the worst teachers and deny students an equal quality of education.

In a ruling with national implications for teacher seniority and dismissal protections, Judge Rolf M. Treu agreed. After an introduction citing major cases backing equity in educational opportunity, Treu concludes: “This court finds that plaintiffs have met their burden of proof on all issues presented.”

Only minutes after the ruling was handed down Tuesday morning, the California Teachers Association posted its intent to appeal. “Like the lawsuit itself, today’s ruling is deeply flawed. CTA, CFT (California Federation of Teachers) and the state of California will appeal. We will appeal on behalf of students and educators. Circumventing the legislative process to strip teachers of their professional rights hurts our students and our schools,” the blog post said.

Local districts reacted to the ruling, saying it holds the potential for major shifts, but at this stage nothing is certain.

“This will take years to be adjudicated. It is difficult at this time to know how our district would change. Having seen major changes in the law over the years, you really do not know how it is going to be implemented until the Education Code is changed and the regulations for implementation are giving to us by the state,” Turlock Unified Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said Tuesday.

“Our thoughts exactly,” echoed Modesto City Schools Superintendent Pam Able.

The California School Boards Association said the ruling was a call to action to reform state laws. “We should not and cannot afford to wait for the appellate courts to address these critical issues,” said President Josephine Lucey in a statement.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, who is vice chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, said Tuesday that she will be working on it.

“I am pleased the court recognized that California lags behind most states in protecting children from ineffective teachers,” Olsen said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing this decision transformed into legislative policy that will give all California children access to an excellent education, and I will be working toward that result.”

The lawsuit argued that the last-in, first-out system of layoffs eliminated many effective younger teachers at poorer schools and led to a domino effect of bumping, where the least effective teachers ended up there instead. Students testified to having sat, learning nothing, for months. Administrators told of dismissal procedures so cumbersome their hands were tied and said the steep learning curve of a teacher’s first three years makes it tough to tell effectiveness in two.

In his opinion, Treu noted that all sides in the 33-day trial agreed that good teachers may be the most important component of school success for children. But evidence of the effects of grossly ineffective teachers, he wrote, “is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

The defense argued that experience is a pivotal factor in effective teaching and that eliminating employment protections would make it harder to attract high-quality teachers.

“All children deserve great teachers,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said. Finding and keeping the best people is key, he said. “Today’s ruling may inadvertently make this critical work even more challenging than it already is.”

Union reaction focused on the money and politics behind the lawsuit, brought by nonprofit Students Matter with funding provided by David Welch, founder of a telecommunications manufacturing firm.

“This lawsuit has nothing to do with what’s best for kids, but was manufactured by a Silicon Valley millionaire and a corporate PR firm to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on our schools,” said CTA President Dean E. Vogel.

Student advocacy organizations and the U.S. Department of Education, however, praised the decision. “My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

“This is a day for the history books,” said the nonprofit National Council on Teacher Quality.

“The decision will force California to address the reality that our most vulnerable students are less likely to have access to effective teachers,” said the Education Trust in a statement:

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. schools and founder of Sacramento-based StudentsFirt, praised the decision and unveiled a website with a 0-5 rating system of states’ layoff policies, SaveGreatTeachers.com. “The great promise of education is its power to end the vicious cycle of poverty and inequality that destroys too many families. While today’s ruling is a victory, the fight for students is far from over,” Rhee said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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