Politics & Government

California teacher tenure, firing laws ruled unconstitutional

California’s rules for teacher tenure and dismissal deprive students of their constitutional right to a quality education, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled on Tuesday.

The tentative decision, issued by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu, reverberated through California’s vast K-12 public school system, promising to inform a roiling national debate over how schools retain and fire teachers.

At the heart of the case lay the contention that a useful education begins with a quality teacher. Rules keeping lackluster teachers in front of students violate a fundamental guarantee of a meaningful education, according to a legal challenge launched by the advocacy group Students Matter on behalf of public school students.

Treu concurred, writing in his decision that “competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience.” He deplored the caliber of classroom instruction many California public school students receive, writing that evidence of subpar teachers “shocks the conscience.”

“There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently in California classrooms,” Treu wrote.

Three interrelated teacher employment standards came in for scrutiny. The lawsuit challenged the length of the probationary period at the end of which rookie teachers become eligible for permanent employment status, which at two years is shorter than in many other states; the process for firing teachers; and the requirement known as “last in, first out” that means teachers with the least service time lose their jobs during budget-driven layoffs.

None of the three passed muster for Treu. He wrote that the two-year window “does not provide nearly enough time for an informed decision to be made regarding the decision of tenure,” called the layoff rules a “lose-lose situation” and decried the “tortuous” process for firing teachers.

The current teacher firing framework is “so complex, so time-consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory,” Treu wrote.

The lawsuit echoed the philosophy of education reform groups throughout the country, many of whom argue that the status quo protects ineffective teachers. Testifying to the national significance of the case, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel weighed in on Tuesday with a statement blasting “another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession.”

Dividing the two sides, in California and other states, is a critical question: does solid job security make teachers better? Or does it create an inflexible system that hurts students?

“The policy debate been raging for quite some time: What are the effects of teacher employment rules on students and student learning?” said Bill Koski, a professor at Stanford Law School who specializes in education law. “At least with regard to this battle, this skirmish, the reformers have won.”

By siding with the plaintiffs, Treu offered a rebuke both to California and to teachers unions that defend California’s rules as important safeguards of due process. The California Teachers Association lambasted the lawsuit as a ploy “manufactured by a Silicon Valley millionaire and a corporate PR firm to undermine the teaching profession” and said Treu’s decision ruling would “strip teachers of their professional rights.”

“The statutes that were under attack have been working for years,” said Eric Heins, a Pittsburg elementary school teacher who is vice president of the teachers union. “What they do is help create stability in the schools with good, experienced teachers.”

Reactions from proponents were triumphant. Among those heaping praise on the decision were Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chief who now heads the Sacramento-based organization StudentsFirst, and Marshall Tuck, a former charter schools executive who is running to unseat State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

“Today’s decision is a major victory for California’s students, and a repudiation of the failed Sacramento status quo,” Tuck said in a statement.

Take our poll on the teacher-tenure ruling on all devices here.

Teacher tenure gained popularity in the early 20th century in the United States and has since become a universal feature of the profession. Rolf’s ruling does not question the concept of tenure so much as the speed with which California teachers acquire the protection. Defenders of permanent status say it attracts people to the field and ensures that administrators can’t arbitrarily jettison teachers.

“These statutes were put into place to create a more stable and fair environment for teachers to teach,” Heins said. “If they speak out on behalf of a student or speak out in a way not to the liking of the administration, they can’t be summarily fired.”

It can also help teachers focus on teaching. David Fields is new enough to the profession that he has not acquired tenure, bouncing between different full-time contracts and substitute teaching gigs. While Fields, of Sacramento, said he sympathized with skeptics of ironclad job guarantees, he craves the stability.

“If you have bulletproof job security, then you don’t have to worry about looking for a new job each year or succumbing to the whims of the administration,” said Fields, 41. “You can focus on your teaching. “That’s what we’re in the classroom to do.”

A long legal road is ahead. Treu stayed implementation to allow appeals, and the California Teachers Association has already vowed to try to reverse Treu’s decision. A spokesman for Attorney General Kamala Harris said the state had not formally decided to appeal.

“We are reviewing the tentative ruling and consulting with our clients,” said Nicholas Pacilio, a spokesman for Harris.

Complaints about the slow pace of teacher dismissals have already spurred legislation to speed the process. This year’s effort, a CTA-backed measure by Assemblwoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, is an Assembly floor vote away from the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown. The governor vetoed a similar bill last year.

Beyond Buchanan’s Assembly Bill 215, the Legislature is not considering major legislation that would change teacher employment statutes or alter California’s tenure and seniority rules. The likelihood of a protracted court fight over Treu’s ruling could open an opportunity for a legislative response.

“I think it’s always better if you can bring everyone to the table to find a solution,” Buchanan said. “It’s certainly better than having a solution imposed on anybody.”

For Republican lawmakers, some of whom have been critical of the CTA’s clout in the Legislature, Treu’s ruling offered a welcome reprieve. Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, released a statement lauding Treu for doing what the Democratic-controlled “Legislature has refused to do for years: put students’ needs above adults.” Others said lawmakers should treat the ruling as a call to action.

“The court recognized that California lags way behind other states in protecting children from ineffective teachers,” said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, vice chair of the Assembly Education Committee. “I’m hopeful that we will see this decision transformed into legislation that will move these ideas forward.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee