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California teacher tenure is struck down: Expect years of appeals

Teacher unions in California slam L.A. judge's ruling striking down seniority, tenure, other protections

The ruling Tuesday by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge that struck down job protections for teachers in California as unconstitutional will undoubtedly spawn a series of appeals that could last years before a final outcome is reached.

But some contend that is too long of a wait and an effort to change the laws should head to the legislature as soon as possible.

“We should not and cannot afford to wait for the appellate courts to address these critical issues,” said Josephine Lucey, the president of the California School Boards Assn., adding that the education community should "immediately begin working with the governor and the California Legislature to resolve these important issues of inequality in education."

If the preliminary ruling becomes final and is upheld, the effect will be sweeping across California and possibly the nation. And any effort to change the laws – or restore them – must now survive court scrutiny.

In his ruling Tuesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu said the laws governing job security were unconstitutional because they harmed predominantly low-income, minority students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom.

The protections "impose a real and appreciable impact on students' fundamental right to equality of education," he wrote. "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience."

The 16-page decision ends the process of laying off teachers based solely on when they were hired. It also strips them of extra job safeguards not enjoyed by other school or state employees. And it eliminates the current tenure process, under which instructors are either fired or win strong job security about 18 months after they start teaching.

Treu wrote that among other things, the tenure and seniority laws hurt teachers, saddling them with poor-performing colleagues and the system with expensive dismissal cases, which drain classroom resources.

If layoffs become necessary, teacher performance should matter, he said. When a high-quality junior teacher is laid off instead of a lesser, more experienced colleague, "the result is classroom disruption on two fronts," he wrote. It's a "lose-lose situation" that "is unfathomable and therefore constitutionally unsupportable."

In his ruling, Treu consistently echoed the arguments of the attorneys who sued California and the top public officials responsible for the state's education laws.

He accepted, for example, that teachers can be evaluated fairly through a statistical analysis based on student test scores, a point of dispute among some educators and experts. He cited testimony quantifying how many months of learning a student can lose because of a bad teacher. 

The verdict represents a major loss for teacher unions and an undiluted victory for the attorneys and families that brought the landmark case on behalf of a well-funded Silicon Valley group.

State and local teachers’ unions reacted swiftly, saying the ruling was misguided and that poor management was to blame for districts that fail to root out incompetent instructors.

"This is a sad day for public education," said Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. No student should endure an ineffective teacher, she said, "but in focusing on these teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, [Treu] strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice."

The state and unions argued that the laws helped ensure fairer outcomes for teachers, from which students also derive benefit.

Experts also said that more needs to be done to rectify conditions outside of school, such as crime and poverty, that impede learning.

The judge "fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric of one of America's best corporate law firms," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "What this continues to do is promote an anti-teacher narrative."

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.

For local and statewide news on education matters, follow @howardblume and @stephenceasar

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

12:14 p.m. PDT: This story was updated with new information regarding the likelihood of multiple appeals.

It was originally posted at 6:26 a.m.

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