Students Matter has serious money for a serious legal fight to break the union stranglehold. If they win the California appeal it will become possible to fire terrible teachers
LOS ANGELES — They have tried and failed to loosen tenure rules for teachers in contract talks and state legislatures. So now, a group of rising stars in the movement to overhaul education employment has gone to court.
In a small, wood-paneled courtroom here this week, nine public school students are challenging California’s ironclad tenure system, arguing that their right to a good education is violated by job protections that make it too difficult to fire bad instructors. But behind the students stand a Silicon Valley technology magnate who is financing the case and an all-star cast of lawyers that includes Theodore B. Olson, the former solicitor general of the United States, who recently won the Supreme Court case that effectively overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
“Children have the right to access good education and an effective teacher regardless of their circumstances,” said David F. Welch, the telecommunications entrepreneur who spent millions of his own dollars to create Students Matter, the organization behind the lawsuit. The group describes itself as a national nonprofit dedicated to sponsoring litigation of this type, and the outcome in California will provide the first indication of whether it can succeed.
John E. Deasy, the schools superintendent of Los Angeles. Monica Almeida/The New York Times
At issue is a set of rules that grant permanent employment status to California teachers after 18 months on the job, require a lengthy procedure to dismiss a teacher, and set up a seniority system in which the teachers most recently hired must be the first to lose their jobs when layoffs occur, as they have regularly in recent years.
Teachers’ unions, which hold powerful sway among lawmakers here, contend that the protections are necessary to ensure that teachers are not fired unfairly. Without these safeguards, the unions say, the profession will not attract new teachers.
“Tenure is an amenity, just like salary and vacation, that allows districts to recruit and retain teachers despite harder working conditions, pay that hasn’t kept pace and larger class sizes,” James M. Finberg, a lawyer for the California teachers’ unions, said this week in his opening statement in court.
The monthlong trial promises to be a closely watched national test case on employment laws for teachers, one of the most contentious debates in education. Many school superintendents and advocates across the country call such laws detrimental and anachronistic, and have pressed for the past decade for changes, with mixed success. Tenure for teachers has been eliminated in three states and in Washington, D.C., and a handful of states prohibit seniority as a factor in teacher layoffs. But in many large states with urban school districts, including California and New York, efforts to push through such changes in the legislature have repeatedly failed.
While several lawsuits demanding more money for schools have succeeded across the country, the California case is the most sweeping legal challenge claiming that students are hurt by employment laws for teachers. The case also relies on a civil rights argument that so far is untested: that poor and minority students are denied equal access to education because they are more likely to have “grossly ineffective” teachers.
Judge Rolf Michael Treu, of Los Angeles County Superior Court, will decide the nonjury trial. His ruling will almost certainly be appealed to the State Supreme Court.