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Editorial: Teacher protections that hurt students are indefensible – unless you’re state’s top education official

The practice of protecting the benefits of public school teachers to the point where it actually harms the most vulnerable students in California is indefensible.

Unless, it turns out, that you are the state’s chief education official.

Defending teacher tenure and other hiring and firing rules is exactly what State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson called for last week when he said he was asking for an appeal of Vergara v. California. He said “this ruling lays the failings of our education system at their feet.”

It did no such thing.

In his June ruling, Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu took issue with rules that have been adopted over the decades by legislators and implemented by school boards. These protections, Treu said, have “direct, real, appreciable and negative” impact on students and violate their constitutional right to an equal education.

Teachers as a group were not harmed in the making of that ruling. In fact, many teachers probably agree. The younger ones, especially, because rules protect a terrible teacher over a wonderful one if the former happens to have been employed longer than the latter. That’s not laying blame at the feet of teachers. It’s throwing students under the school bus.

Torlakson, a former teacher, surely knows that. But Torlakson also knows that without support of well-funded teachers unions, he may lose his re-election campaign to Marshall Tuck, the reformer from L.A. As is their job, union leaders fight vociferously for protection for their members to the exclusion of all else. It’s up to elected officials to balance unions’ desires with students’ needs. Torlakson shows he’s incapable of that.

Tuck said that if he wins, on Day 1 he would drop his office’s support for an appeal of Vergara and urge the governor to do the same.

Gov. Jerry Brown gave his blessing to the appeal, though apparently not for the ideological reasons cited by Torlakson. According to the governor, the issue must be settled by an appellate court. The California Constitution doesn’t authorize school districts to throw out state statutes on their own, Brown contends.

Theoretically, Brown and the Legislature could implement Treu’s suggestion by approving new legislation that would replace the tenure rules that the judge has deemed unconstitutional, though the unions’ clout all but ensures that lawmakers won’t touch tenure.

Brown’s position is not very satisfying. He and Attorney General Kamala Harris, who filed the appeal on the state’s behalf, have ducked taking stands on the tenure ruling. In his debate Thursday with his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, Brown should be direct by stating what he thinks about the numerous teacher protections that have impeded the education of the state’s poorest.

Does he support lifetime tenure for teachers after two years? Does he think it is fair that seniority rules meant students in California’s poorest inner city schools lost a majority of their teachers during some of the worst recessionary years? Does he think teacher protections should outweigh the ability of public school students to get a decent education?

Perhaps the timing of the Torlakson-Brown-Harris appeal gives some clue. You can always tell elected officials feel sheepish about some news they are imparting when they drop it on a Friday afternoon, late in the news cycle. This appeal was filed Friday, the day after Treu finalized his tentative decision, though the state could have appealed any time up to the end of October.

We can only guess the timing of this particular Friday – the last day of the legislative session and right before Labor Day weekend – says that Torlakson, Brown and Harris know that a majority of Californians don’t want them to fight this ruling.