Suit seeks to overturn 'outdated' teacher job protections
A nonprofit backed partly by organizations known for battling teachers unions has filed litigation challenging the constitutionality of California laws that make it more difficult to fire or lay off ineffective teachers.
The suit, filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court and announced Tuesday, takes aim at five California statutes that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the teacher dismissal process.
“A handful of outdated laws passed by the California Legislature are preventing school administrators from maintaining or improving the quality of our public educational system,” the lawsuit says.
The group behind the legal action is called Students Matter, a newly formed nonprofit that defines its mission as changing “outdated and harmful state laws that prevent the recruitment, support and retention of effective teachers.”
In its complaint, the suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly -- in 18 months -- well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of laying off less-experienced teachers first, rather than keeping the best teachers. And the suit takes aim at a dismissal process that, it claims, is too costly, too lengthy and typically results in ineffective teachers holding on to their jobs.
Teacher unions have defended tenure, seniority and dismissal rules as important and frequently necessary job protections. They've insisted the problems in education lie elsewhere, such as in funding levels that have dropped in California.
The founder of Students Matter is Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch, a research scientist who went on to co-found Infinera, a manufacturer of optical telecommunications systems based in Sunnyvale.
“We are challenging a system that was fashioned by special interests and has burdened our schools with an inflexible environment for hiring and retaining the best teachers," said Welch.
The group's funders include the foundation of Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, which has backed numerous education initiatives and “a handful of other individuals,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Riel.
This effort is the most sweeping of several underway — all of which affect the Los Angeles Unified School District. The first one, Reed vs. L.A. Unified, resulted in a settlement that allows the school system to bypass some campuses when layoffs are necessary. The teachers union has appealed that settlement.
A second case, Doe vs. Deasy, alleges that L.A. Unified is not following state laws that mandate regular teacher evaluations and that such measures need to include evidence of student achievement. The school system is in informal settlement discussions involving that litigation.
Separately, before a labor board, the local teachers union has challenged a new teacher evaluation system being developed by L.A. Unified. It would use student test scores as one measure of teacher quality.
“We have been able to advance the rights of students only so far,” said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, who has commended the intent of all these suits. “Reed dealt with providing stability for schools but not the quality of teaching.” The latest lawsuit “is aggressively going after long-term issues which have thwarted the rights of students to a high-quality education. I wish California had corrected its laws before things had to get to this level of interventions.”
The advisory committee of Students Matter includes Students First, a group headed by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee; Democrats for Education Reform, whose California branch is led by former state Sen. Gloria Romero; and Parent Revolution, which organizes parents to compel dramatic changes at local schools through so-called parent-trigger laws. All of these have faced off against teachers unions in the past.
Also on the committee is the New Schools Venture Fund of former state Board of Education President Ted Mitchell. That fund has helped bankroll charter schools and other projects. Another member is Education Trust-West, an advocacy and research group.
“Achievement gaps will persist unless we can reform an educational system that results in our highest-need students often being taught by the least effective teachers,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West.
The legal team includes Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Theodore B. Olson, a U.S. solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration. He argued Bush v. Gore, over the contested 2000 presidential election, before the U.S. Supreme Court. Along with Boutros, Olson also represented activists who successfully overturned California’s ban on gay marriage.
“These state laws create inequalities by depriving students taught by ineffective teachers of the fundamental right to education guaranteed by the state Constitution,” said Boutrous, “and they have a disproportionately negative effect on low-income and minority students.”
-- Howard Blume