Capitol Alert

Justices ask: Do California teacher laws bind administrators?

Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Students Matter David Welch makes comments on the initial Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles on June 10, 2014.
Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Students Matter David Welch makes comments on the initial Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles on June 10, 2014. AP

Justices hearing the appeal of a case that could overturn California’s teacher employment rules appeared skeptical Thursday that the current laws force the worst teachers into certain classrooms.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu in 2014 ruled unconstitutional California’s laws for granting tenure and firing teachers, either for performance reasons or because of budget constraints. A group of students brought the case, arguing California is depriving them of their constitutional right to a quality education with rules that regularly subject poor and minority kids to incompetent teachers. The state appealed Treu’s decision, and oral arguments came before a three-justice panel for the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles on Thursday

“No state has the combination of egregiously non-student-protective statutes that California has,” argued Theodore Boutrous, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The evidence is overwhelming,” he said, that those laws “compel districts to leave grossly under-performing, ineffective teachers in the classroom” and that “low income and minority students are feeling this brunt.”

But the justices pressed for evidence that California’s rules directly or inevitably lead poor teachers to be concentrated in disadvantaged schools. They probed how much authority local school officials wield when it comes to hiring and firing teachers.

District administrators have complete discretion to assign their teachers and workforce to classrooms as they see fit.

Deputy Attorney General Nimrod P. Elias

Whether statutes “tie local administrators’ hands” is crucial, Justice Brian M. Hoffstadt said, adding that the plaintiffs had to prove that “the control local administrators have is not going to be sufficient” to overcome detrimental laws.

“At least some of the school districts have been able to apply the statutes in a way that doesn’t result in this unlawful concentration” of ineffective teachers, Hoffstadt said.

“Is it the statute or how they are administered?” asked Justice Judith Ashmann-Gerst. “Don’t the administrators have the ultimate power” over where teachers are assigned?

Attorneys opposing Treu’s ruling underscored that point. They conceded that ineffective teachers will always exist but argued that school administrators – not rigid state laws – have the final say in where teachers end up.

“These statutes don’t dictate how districts assign teachers to schools or classrooms,” Deputy Attorney General Nimrod P. Elias said. “District administrators have complete discretion to assign their teachers and workforce to classrooms as they see fit,” so “it cannot be inevitable that these statutes cause these harms.”

While the outcome could have profound implications for California’s sprawling public school system, the case also crystallizes a national debate around how to best improve schools.

This court and the California Supreme Court are the only hope for these children. The Legislature isn’t going to do anything.

Attorney Theodore Boutros, Jr.

On one side stand data-driven organizations that promote ideas like reforming tenure rules, instituting more rigorous teacher evaluations and making it easier to retain effective teachers regardless of their experience. They say the current system allows incompetent teachers to remain in the classroom.

Those groups have clashed with teachers’ unions who call the agenda an assault on teachers’ job security. Organized labor and allies warn of a corporate agenda dedicated to undermining public education and despair of an inordinate reliance on testing. The National Education Association has denounced and filed a brief opposing Treu’s ruling.

Underscoring those fault lines, an attorney for the California Teachers Association – a politically formidable organization with 325,000 members – joined California’s attorney in making arguments on Thursday.

Current tenure rules and a thorough dismissal process “ have the effect of improving overall quality of the teaching pool because they make the teaching profession more attractive,” attorney Michael Rubin argued.

“The mere fact that there are students who at some point in their career have been assigned to a bad teacher” shouldn’t force California to discard those rules, Rubin said.

Throughout the arguments, attorneys on both sides alluded to the political stakes. Lawyers for California and the CTA argued the courts should not be rewriting education policy. Rubin said that “it’s for the Legislature, not the court, to decide” rules around policies like tenure.

“The question before the court is not, ‘are these statutes better or worse than theoretical policy alternatives?’ ” Elias said.

Boutrous disagreed, directly appealing to justices to act. So far, lawmakers in California have rejected bills responding directly to Treu’s prescriptions after the trial phase.

“This court and the California Supreme Court are the only hope for these children,” Boutrous said. “The Legislature isn’t going to do anything.”

The court has 90 days to issue an opinion.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

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