Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: A judge speaks for students, but will others follow?

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

California’s Sacramento-based teachers unions do not often lose a battle they want to win – but that happened on Tuesday. California’s rules that protect teacher tenure and make firing ineffective teachers hugely expensive were struck down by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu. He ruled them unconstitutional.

The implications for California public schools could be huge – but probably won’t be. It’s not that Treu’s decision wasn’t momentous. It was, and it’s not every day a sitting judge whacks California’s most potent lobby in Sacramento – and whacks it right where it lives.

“All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,” Treu wrote in his ruling. “There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.”

The effect, Treu wrote, is clear: “Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

It does shock the conscience, but there is reason to doubt that Treu’s ruling will have its intended effect based on how some politicos reacted on Tuesday: “Attracting, training and nurturing talented and dedicated educators are among the most important tasks facing every school district,” California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a prepared statement. “Today’s ruling may inadvertently make this critical work even more challenging than it already is.”

Does that sound like Sacramento politicians are willing to risk the campaign funding from the California Teachers Association to comply with Treu’s ruling? No, even though this issue cries out for a legislative response from Gov. Jerry Brown or Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

According to trial evidence that inspired Treu’s ruling, African American students in the Los Angeles Unified School District were 43 percent more likely than white students to be taught by ineffective teachers. Latino students were 68 percent more likely.

In the Sacramento City Unified School District, the previous superintendent – Jonathan Raymond – got around teacher tenure by setting up “priority schools” in Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods. He was promptly sued and hounded until the day he resigned, while his priority schools were constantly badmouthed by the local teachers union.

Treu’s words speak to a California public schools system protecting the entitlements of grown-ups over the needs of kids – especially minority kids.

But nothing will happen until many others join in the outrage of a judge who got it right.

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