At every crossroads toward the future, it’s been said, tradition will post 10,000 people to guard the past. For frustrated Californians that see the need for significant change in the education system, a major number of those guardians are found in California’s Democratic-controlled legislature and the California Teachers Association (CTA), which is the state’s largest political contributor. Unfortunately, the problems are not new. I wrote at length on the terrible effects of California’s teacher employment laws and practices back in 2005, attacking tenure, seniority, and the evaluation and compensation systems as damaging to students. The depth of dysfunction in California has been documented repeatedly, perhaps most thoroughly in the 2007 “Getting Down to Facts” report, issued by Stanford University’s Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice.
One of the key conclusions of the report, based on 22 separate studies it commissioned, was this: Current teacher policies do not let state and local administrators make the best use of the pool of potential teachers nor adequately support current teachers.
Five years later and with virtually no changes to teacher employment, compensation, dismissal, or tenure laws or practices – and no hope of any legislation passing – California’s reformers are following in the steps of great civil rights movements and seeking relief from the courts. In October 2011, a group of families, with support from EdVoice, sued the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to force compliance with a mostly ignored California law known as the Stull Act, which mandates among other things that teacher evaluations occur regularly and that they include student performance data.
Even the current LAUSD superintendent admitted in his deposition that “the current system doesn’t best serve adults or students” and does not focus on “the whole part of an education, and that is how students do.” Now the Democratic mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has jumped in on the side of the families, filing a friend-of-the court brief insisting on change and noting that LAUSD only evaluated 40 percent of tenured teachers and 70 percent of non-tenured teachers. Moreover, the district’s own task force found “only a tenuous link between evaluations and improved teaching and learning.”
Last month, my colleague at the American Center for School Choice, Steve Sugarman, analyzed the current Reed vs. State of California case that is, at least so far, defeating the “last in, first out” hiring practices that the CTA advocates and most school districts adopt. This policy leads to disproportionate firing of teachers in schools that serve poor neighborhoods and operate in difficult urban areas because the seniority policies of unions and districts place the newly hired teachers at these schools. Thus the trial court found the practice unconstitutionally deprives students of an equal education.
Just last week, lawyers filed on behalf of eight teenage students across the state a third attack on the teaching status quo that demonstrably damages kids.
A San Francisco Bay area nonprofit, Students Matter, is leading the effort, which names four school districts. It has received support from Democrats for Educational Reform, headed in California by another American Center colleague, Gloria Romero, along with Michele Rhee’s StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution.
The suit seeks to overturn five laws that essentially prevent quality teaching, which when it occurs, disproportionately and adversely affects minority and poor communities. The suit contends that California’s tenure law, which grants lifetime protections after only 18 months of in-classroom experience, is an inadequate time frame for determining long-term employment.
It also targets the 10-step dismissal process that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue and results in only rare teacher firings. Last year, LAUSD paid a teacher arrested for lewd acts with students $40,000 to resign. I doubt you could find a teacher fired in California in the last 20 years because students didn’t learn anything in class. As a California school board member, I have regularly signed off on low-six-figure settlements to obtain teacher resignations for unethical actions rather than risk high-six-figure costs and perhaps having to take them back in to our classrooms. It’s nauseating, but it’s the reality of this process in California. Lastly, the suit seeks to overturn more broadly than Reed the “last-in-first-out” legal provisions for teacher layoffs.
Will this all lead to a kind of mini Brown vs. Board of Education revolutionary decision that will eventually change the California education landscape for the better? Hard to tell.
The education establishment, California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators, sued the state in 2010 (Robles-Wong vs. State of California) asserting that California had unconstitutionally failed to fund education. The court said education had no constitutional right to a certain level of funding.
Do California students have a constitutional right to processes that greatly improve the chance they will have effective and competent teachers? When the status quo politics and special interests of the day have stymied progress, the courts have often been the last hope for civil rights, whether they be for racial, gender or sexual orientation equality.
Let’s hope California children find refuge there also.