Students Fight for Education Reform

On Monday, January 27th, the controversial and potentially explosive Vergara v. California trial began in downtown Los Angeles. Sponsored by the non-profit organization Student Matters and represented by a team of attorneys from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, nine public school students from Los Angeles Unified School District have sued the state of California to challenge five statutes of California’s teacher employment and dismissal laws. They argue that these laws are draining schools’ resources and inhibiting student achievement.  The plaintiffs are expressly targeting three current policies: the permanent employment statute, dismissal statuses, and seniority-based layoffs.

Permanent Employment Statute

Within eighteen months of being hired, administrators must either grant or deny permanent employment to teachers. Permanent employment (tenure) provides teachers with full legal protections in regards to being terminated.  The law was designed to protect teachers as soon as possible from administrative changes. Teachers unions worry that eliminating the opportunity of tenure could create an environment of fear and low morale. Once awarded tenure, administrators must follow dismissal statutes and cannot terminate teachers without reason. The plaintiffs argue that the law forces administrators to make hasty decisions about the competence of teachers in the classroom.

Dismissal Statutes:

In order to dismiss a teacher, the school district must first provide the employee with a notice of his or her faults with a ninety day period to correct them. Following that, the teacher must receive a letter of intent to dismiss, and has the option to file for a first hearing with the school board and a second hearing before the Commission of Professional Competence.  The teacher can then appeal the decision of the second hearing to the state superior court. The plaintiffs allege this process is inordinately long and costly to the district, dissuading administrators from taking action to remove ineffective teachers. This results in some teachers simply sitting in an empty classroom, or classes receiving subpar education. The defendants argue that the dismissal statutes protects employees from discrimination, administration changes, inaccurate determinations of “effectiveness”, and teaching controversial topics.

Seniority-Based Layoffs (also known as Last-In-First-Out)

Currently, a permanent employee’s services cannot be terminated until the school has released all employees of less seniority.  The exception to this is when teachers of less seniority has specific certifications to meet the demands of the school district, and no senior employee is able to fulfill the requirements. The plaintiffs argue this policy removes some of the best teachers from the classroom and stagnates the growth of a young teaching population. The opposing side considers experience to be an important factor in the success of a teacher.

This past week, the plaintiffs called upon several witnesses to support their case.  LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy testified to the length and cost of trying to dismiss a tenured teacher, pricing the process at $250,000-$400,000 per teacher. Troy Christmas, the Director of Labor Relations for the Oakland Unified School District, echoed Deasy by describing how the process of removing ineffective teachers can take two to five years and noting that this inordinate time and expense can dissuade administrators from pursuing dismissal.

The defendants in the case include California Governor Jerry Brown, the State Superintendent of Public Education Tom Torlakson, and the two largest teacher unions in California, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT). Although they have yet to present their full case, they have been quick to attack their opponents’ position.  According to the CTA, “this lawsuit highlights the wrong problems, proposed the wrong solutions, and follows the wrong process.” The CTA has further argued that the case ignores evidence of the value of teacher experience and warns that should the plaintiffs win, the erosion of teacher rights will exacerbate our current difficulty in attracting and retaining quality teachers. Although the plaintiffs are students, CTA is skeptical of their role in the case, asserting that the involved role of their sponsor, Students Matter, proves the case is less about educational justice than about advancing the agenda of certain individuals.

One thing on which both parties can agree is that education reform is a necessity. There are ineffective teachers in the classroom, and more so in lower socioeconomic areas. Firing ineffective teachers is a tedious process, but determining effectiveness could be even more challenging. Does eliminating certain legal protections for teachers create an atmosphere of fear or does it encourage increasing levels of teacher performance? Even after determining the root causes of the flaws in our public education system, there is a clash of ideas over proposed solutions.

As the case develops, The Stanford Review will continue to publish updates as they happen and evaluate different positions surrounding the heated topic of education reform as a case study of the public education system and its duties to the children of the United States.

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