Across the political spectrum, people agree that quality teaching is essential to student success. The National Council on Teacher Quality puts it this way: "Effective teachers matter a great deal and ineffective teachers may matter even more."
Yet in California, principals and superintendents have very little flexibility in hiring and firing teachers.
While some California governors and lawmakers have attempted changes, over the years they have run into a brick wall of entrenched interests led by the California Teachers Association.
So now comes David F. Welch, a Silicon Valley fiber optics entrepreneur with 125 patents to his name. A product of public schools, he notes, "My success in life can largely be attributed to the effective teachers I've had." However, today he looks around and sees that too many children, particularly those from poorer communities, do not get the quality teaching they should.
When Welch asked people for a short list of changes they'd make, five statutes in California's education code consistently came up as barriers to quality teaching. So Welch started a nonprofit, Student Matters, to launch a constitutional lawsuit to overturn them.
These are ripe for overhaul:
Permanent Employment (Code 44929.21.b)
California is one of only six states that offer tenure after only two years of teaching. And because the decision has to come before March 15 of the second year, often it is based on only one formal evaluation that pays little or no attention to student performance. More than 98 percent of new teachers get permanent employment after 18 months.
Dismissal (Codes 44934, 44938.b.1-2, 44944)
Teachers have rights far greater than other state employees before they can be terminated for unsatisfactory performance. "These hurdles," concludes the lawsuit, "result in a labyrinthine dismissal process requiring investigations, hearings, union grievances, administrative appeals, court challenges and re-hearings all of which can and do take multiple years and cost hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars." The result is that ineffective teachers tend to get moved around. Less than 0.002 percent of teachers a year are dismissed for unprofessional conduct or unsatisfactory performance.
Last-In, First-Out (44955)
When it comes to budget-based layoffs, California is one of only 12 states where the newest teachers go first, based on seniority regardless of teaching effectiveness. As Sacramento City Unified school board member Jeff Cuneo has noted, last-hired, first-fired "doesn't give superintendents any leeway on performance and it causes staffing disruption and chaos in the fall."
The lawsuit, filed May 14 in Los Angeles, doesn't ask the courts to prescribe any particular solution, a good thing. Eliminate the statutory impediments and lawmakers can craft new laws and school districts can negotiate better contracts.
With a high-powered legal team led by former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, this lawsuit brings some urgency to the task. If he brings the passion and tenacity to this effort that he did to overturning Proposition 8, he can make teacher effectiveness a high-profile issue.
Students, parents, teachers, superintendents, school boards, researchers and advocates should press Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials to settle this lawsuit, as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did in 2004 with the Williams case that challenged horrific school conditions.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa warned teachers in December 2010 that if they continued to resist reasonable changes, "tenure and seniority will be eliminated."
This lawsuit puts on much-needed pressure to break California's political impasse around teacher effectiveness. No one is well-served when ineffective teachers are protected at the expense of students and good teachers.