SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — After a two-month trial and another two months of deliberating, a California judge on Tuesday found that a handful of laws governing the hiring and firing of the state’s teachers are unconstitutional because they deprive children of a quality education. It was the first time in U.S. history a court has found that teacher effectiveness is an essential component of the right to an equal public education, said Russlynn Ali, a former assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.
Here’ is a look at the issues in the case and where it goes from here:
PROTECTIONS AT ISSUE
The employment protections teachers in California have are among the nation’s strongest, a reflection of the enormous political influence wielded by the California Teachers Association. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu, who was appointed to the bench in 1995 by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, struck down five laws that dictate when teachers are given tenure, subject to budget-based layoffs and dismissed for unprofessional conduct. The first grants teachers tenure, also known as “permanent employment,” after just two years on the job, which is sooner than in all but four other states.
The next bases layoffs solely on reverse seniority, a practice known as “last in, first out” that is carried out to one degree or another in 17 other states. Finally, Treu overturned three laws that spell out some of the elaborate procedures administrators and school districts must follow before they can fire teachers for incompetence or criminal activity.
The judge concluded that the statutes violate the equal protection and other provisions of the California Constitution by exposing the state’s 6.2 million students to “grossly ineffective teachers.” He said the laws served no compelling purpose, disproportionately harmed poor and minority children and had led to an unfair, expensive and nonsensical system that drives excellent new teachers from the classroom too soon while allowing incompetent senior ones to remain.
Treu put his decision on hold to allow for appeals that California’s teachers unions said they would pursue. Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the two main defendants, have not said if they would do the same. It typically takes about three years for appeals of trial court decisions to work their way through a midlevel appeals court and ultimately the California Supreme Court. Lawyers for the nine students on whose behalf the case was brought said Tuesday they hoped to get the process expedited.
One issue that is likely to come up on appeal is the relatively little ink the judge devoted to explaining his rationale. His opinion ran just 16 pages, and the unions complained Tuesday that he had failed to explain how getting rid of job protections that have been in place for generations would improve classroom performance while overlooking the roles that poverty, segregation and inadequate school funding play in student learning.
In the meantime, reform advocates and some lawmakers who support the ruling said they would push the governor and Legislature to take immediate steps to replace the problematic statutes.
Because state-specific laws were at issue and the decision relied on the California Constitution, the ruling would not have a direct effect on teacher-protection laws in any other states. Education experts noted, however, that the case was likely to inspire similar lawsuits or fuel demands for change elsewhere.
Lawmakers and elected officials across the country have been moving in recent years to make teacher performance the defining feature of layoff and tenure decisions, The Education Commission of the States reported last month that 10 states now prohibit the use of tenure or seniority as a primary factor in making layoff decisions, twice as many as did in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of states that use performance evaluations instead of years of employment to guide tenure decisions rose from 10 in 2011 to 16 this year.
Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to take on teacher tenure in 2005 with a ballot initiative that would have increased the probationary period for new teachers in California from two years to five and allow tenured teachers with two consecutive poor performance evaluations to be fired without an appeal hearing. Proposition 74 failed with only 45 percent voter support.
Since then, a growing number of prominent Democrats — President Barack Obama chief among them — have called for reforms designed to hold individual teachers more responsible for student outcomes through merit pay, evaluations linked to standardized test scores and rules that make it easier to weed out ineffective educators.
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