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Students' interests at center of trial over teacher protection laws

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A groundbreaking, two-month trial challenging teacher job protections in California concluded Thursday with both sides asserting that the interests of students are at stake.

The case, Vergara vs. California, seeks to overturn a set of laws that affect how teachers are fired, laid off and granted tenure.

The Silicon Valley-based group Students Matter brought the lawsuit on behalf of nine plaintiffs, contending that the regulations hinder the removal of ineffective teachers. The result is a workforce with thousands of "grossly ineffective" teachers, which disproportionately hurts low-income and minority students, attorneys said. This outcome makes the laws unconstitutional, they argued.

"Education is the lifeline of both the individual and society," attorney Theodore Boutrous told a Los Angeles courtroom with more than 130 observers. "These statutes are killing that lifeline."

The rules have been defended by the state of California and the state's two largest teacher unions — the California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers. Their attorneys countered that it is not the laws but poor management that is to blame for districts' failing to root out incompetent instructors.

Job protections help districts to recruit and retain teachers — which benefits students, attorneys say.

"The interests of students and teachers are aligned," said attorney James Finberg.

The plaintiffs want to streamline a teacher dismissal process that can be long and expensive — and that affords more rights to teachers than to other state employees. They also want to end a layoff process for teachers that relies mostly on seniority rather than on determining which instructors are most effective.

Seniority may be entirely objective, said plaintiffs' attorney Marcellus McRae, but so would layoffs based on height, the alphabet or the ability to dunk a basketball.

Finberg countered that seniority is fair and that experience typically correlates to better performance.

At one point, Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu, who will decide the case without a jury, interrupted the defense to question the assertion that better management was the preferable solution if a change in law could benefit students in poorly managed districts.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Carson, representing the state, said remedies include electing a new school board, placing pressure on the school system to fire a superintendent and converting a campus to an independently run charter school.

"If that's the best that the state of California can do to solve these problems, we are in a world of trouble," countered Boutrous during his rebuttal.

The plaintiffs also are contesting the tenure process, under which administrators must decide whether to grant these job protections after about 18 months.

Treu asked the defense why it was so important to defend the 18-month threshold if more time for evaluation could yield a better decision.

Finberg argued that a district could protect students from potential harm by letting go of a borderline instructor. Extending the review period could mean that a poor teacher would remain on staff longer, he said.

Over the course of the trial, attorneys for each side called more than 30 witnesses, including students who described their experiences with teachers they believed were ineffective.

The defense rebutted this testimony with evidence that some of these teachers are highly regarded.

Both sides are to submit written briefs by April 10, with a ruling due within 90 days after that. The losing side is almost certain to appeal.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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