Education reformers and their teachers union foes seemed equally stunned on Tuesday by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu's ruling that found California's teacher tenure system—which makes it nearly impossible for public schools to fire teachers—to be an affront to the equal protection clause in the state constitution.
This may be just the first step in a long legal process that pits a group of poor kids and reformers against the state, the powerful California Teachers Association, and its allies in the legislature, but this was big national news—and the latest volley in an ongoing debate about education reform.
The judge agreed with the plaintiff's argument that tenure and other statutes "result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low–income and minority students." It's such a tortuous and costly process for school districts to eliminate bad teachers that few even bother trying, the judge ruled.
The case came down to priorities: Should job security for teachers continue to trump the educational rights of students, especially poor ones?
This case included plaintiffs from the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation into the district's firing process and concluded that it rarely ousted the incompetent. In fact, the district struggled to even boot teachers accused of horrific misconduct. In one notorious case, LAUSD paid a teacher $40,000 to get him to drop an appeal of his firing after he was accused of feeding children his own semen.
That 2012 case sparked angry calls for reform of the dismissal system, but the CTA quashed the effort. A subsequent bill that passed the legislature would actually have made it harder to get rid of abusive teachers, and earned a veto from the governor. The state senate finally approved some reforms earlier this week, but the watered-down bill only applies to teachers accused of egregious misconduct.
Given such raw displays of CTA power, it's clear that nothing will change without a court directive. And seeing how difficult it is to get rid of teachers that are accused of crimes, it's easy to understand the plaintiffs' point: Thousands of incompetent teachers are left in the classroom.
The judge also targeted the "last in, first out" law, which bases layoffs on seniority. "No matter how gifted the junior teacher, and no matter how grossly ineffective the senior teacher, the junior gifted one … is separated from them," explained the judge.
A defense witness testified that only between 1 and 3 percent of teachers are "grossly ineffective," but Treu noted that "the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250," given the state's 275,000 active teachers. That's a lot of teachers inflicting harm on thousands of students, without even considering the merely mediocre ones.
"We the people should call upon the governor and attorney general, who defended this case against the minority children, to stop the appeals," said Gloria Romero, a former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles. "The reason we could achieve victory was this was done in the independent branch of government where CTA money doesn't play." She has asked Gov. Jerry Brown to call for a special legislative session and to "examine your Jesuit conscience and do the right thing for poor children."
In response, CTA blasted Romero as part of "yet another attempt by the usual corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession." It boasted that the state would appeal, even though the attorney general's office said it is still considering the matter.
"We didn't think, honestly, that we would have a chance of winning," said an exuberant Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, who supported the plaintiffs. "We just wanted to go to trial and force [the union] to defend the indefensible under oath."
If the ruling is upheld, the legislature will need to defy the CTA and revisit teacher dismissal laws. But Austin is right that the real change needs to come from the grassroots, with the public demanding that the state start putting the education of kids above the job security demanded by the unions representing those kids' teachers.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.