Karin Klein: Lawsuit isn’t way to fix California’s teacher laws

Julia Macias, one of the nine student plaintiffs in the case where a judge ruled California’s teacher tenure laws unconstitutional, speaks outside Los Angeles Superior Court in June 2014.
Julia Macias, one of the nine student plaintiffs in the case where a judge ruled California’s teacher tenure laws unconstitutional, speaks outside Los Angeles Superior Court in June 2014. New York Times file

There’s bad education. Then there’s unconstitutionally bad education.

In which category do laws belong when they require a principal to make stay-or-go decisions about new teachers within 18 months of hiring them? How about when it takes years to fire a teacher who dulls students’ minds and crushes their interest in learning? Or when bad times force layoffs and the veteran teachers almost invariably get to stay, whether or not they’re good at their jobs?

These are the questions that a state appeals court will consider later this month in the Vergara v. California case, in which the plaintiffs claim that the state’s teacher protection laws unconstitutionally rob students of an excellent education and deny the civil rights of low-income students of color. A lower court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

There are good reasons to alter the laws challenged by Vergara. Quick decisions about new teachers aren’t just bad for schools, they’re bad for teachers. It typically takes beginning teachers four years to reach the top of their game; why not give them that time before throwing a struggling newbie out the door?

The current system for firing the few really awful teachers is downright crazy. Due process is one thing, but it can take years and cost more than $100,000.

The appeals court, though, must consider more than whether certain laws should be improved. It also must ask itself whether these laws are so damaging that they unconstitutionally hinder public education and deny civil rights. And it should ask itself about the kinds of educational havoc that might be wrought by throwing the laws out wholesale.

In his ruling, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu relied in part on testimony that 1 to 3 percent of public school teachers are “grossly ineffective.” There is no doubt that bad teachers have an outsized effect on student learning – I have not forgiven Miss Martin, my eighth-grade math teacher, for tying our entire class into knots of incomprehension – but this still doesn’t sound like one of the biggest problems stifling education in our state.

True, schools in low-income areas have higher proportions of these weaker teachers, but that is less a result of the challenged laws than of contracts that give school districts too little authority to assign strong instructors where they are most needed.

On a practical level, supporters of the Vergara lawsuit argue that whether or not these educational problems are unconstitutional, it is helpful for the courts to throw them out. But that not only would pervert the role of the courts, which should not rule on educational ideology, it also would create a potential mess of unintended consequences.

The state’s big problem is not getting rid of its low-performing teachers; it is finding new teachers to hire. California is less likely to recruit teachers if tenure and seniority privileges are not just softened but completely trashed.

And if teacher-protection laws are found to be unconstitutional, groups of all educational stripes would be encouraged to sue over every significant shortcoming of California education. Just for starters: How about the lousy student-to-counselor ratios in many schools? Understaffed school libraries? Class sizes of 40 or so? Or Gov. Jerry Brown’s refusal to track objective data on teacher placement and student progress?

There are times when conditions are so bad – such as when low-income students went without the adequate textbooks that were basic in more affluent schools – that a lawsuit is the right and only path.

This is not one of those times. Taking on teacher-protection laws, while ignoring worse conditions because they don’t fit the school-reform ideology, won’t forge a coherent path to better public education.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at