Nan Austin

February 5, 2014

On Campus: Rights of students, teachers being tested

A potentially groundbreaking lawsuit seeks to overturn California statutes on tenure, seniority-based layoffs and tough dismissal protections. The picture plaintiffs are painting in the early days of the trial isn’t pretty.

On Campus

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A potentially groundbreaking lawsuit for California education is in its second week at trial. Vergara v. California, underway in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks to overturn state statutes on teacher tenure, seniority rights and tough dismissal protections.

The plaintiffs are presenting first, and no matter one’s personal stand on teacher rights, the picture witnesses paint of struggling to fire awful teachers or laying off the best and brightest is not pretty.

California law grants teachers tenure after 18 months of teaching. It also puts seniority as the key priority in layoff decisions, the “last-in, first-out” statute. But while teachers typically improve a lot in their first two years, individual skills matter more after that, according to a 2010 study by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

A California Teachers Association statement says the lawsuit “ignores all research that shows teaching experience does matter and contributes to student learning.” It did not cite the research.

There are four statutes being contested by the lawsuit regarding dismissal protections. Over the past 10 years, only 91 teachers have been dismissed in all of California, most for egregious conduct, according to Students Matter, the nonprofit group behind the lawsuit.

Why a lawsuit rather than rewriting the laws?

“We have political gridlock and policy gridlock on these issues in the Legislature. Entrenched political interests; huge political contributions; fights with rhetoric in the political atmosphere. But we’re talking about constitutional rights of children. Kids can’t vote,” said lead counsel Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. “We have a tradition in California and in our country, that when the political system breaks down and that injures the constitutional rights of citizens – including children – the courts weigh in.”

What’s at stake?

“Amazing teachers really do change students’ lives. They don’t just teach, they inspire and motivate,” said plaintiff and high school senior Kate Elliott. “I know I learn more and care more about school when I have a great teacher. I’m a part of this case because I believe every student in California deserves amazing teachers, and if there are laws that are keeping that from happening, we need to change those laws.”

In this job, I meet amazing teachers every day, people whose energy, intelligence, organizational skills – and the eyes in the backs of their heads – make them formidable leaders of large, squirmy groups of short people with poor impulse control.

In this job, I also run into laws that give teachers rights that people in the private sector can’t even dream of, such as salary cuts that just disappear at the end of a contract. After sick leave is used up, who else gets up to 100 days of “differential,” the difference between what the temp makes and the regular guy’s salary?

Emotions on both sides run high, but what’s fair probably lies somewhere in the middle. Teachers need to be respected and valued, but laws should value student needs as well.

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