When the Los Angeles school district was rocked by the largest abuse scandal in its history two years ago, Supt. John Deasy wanted one thing from the Legislature: the ability to quickly fire offending teachers.
He didn’t get it from lawmakers. He got it this week from an L.A. County Superior Court judge who ruled that school districts should have more authority over who they hire and fire.
With this authority, the superintendent said: “We can rectify a catastrophe.”
Now, the question is: Will this victory pay off in the classroom?
Across the country, states have wrestled with various strategies to recruit and retain the best and quickly remove the worst teachers.
“There’s been a big national experiment taking place,” said Jesse Rothstein, an associate professor of public policy at UC Berkeley who testified for the state and its largest teacher unions, which lost the suit. “There’s no evidence yet that these changes have had a beneficial effect.”
If the ruling stands, the challenge for California will be to craft a system that offers stability to teachers but also gives districts the ability to manage their workforce so that the best teachers reach the students who need them most.
Over the last decade, a vision of education reform has exploded across the country. Wealthy philanthropists and foundations have influenced laws and policies around giving parents more school choices, measuring student achievement and teacher quality with test scores and promoting technology in the classroom.
They’ve also singled out teacher unions as a major impediment to improving schools and set their sights on diminishing their influence as well as limiting the individual rights of teachers.
The litigation, Vergara vs. California, responded to the reality of state politics: Teacher unions are among the most powerful forces; legislation to limit teacher rights has scant chance of becoming law.
In 2005, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked voters to require that teachers work five years instead of two for the security of tenure.
Voters sided with unions, rejecting that ballot measure as well as another that would have weakened organized labor.
Unions solidified their influence with the return of Jerry Brown to the governor’s office and the growing dominance of a closely allied Democratic Party.
Philanthropists were divided over how to push reforms that were advancing in other states. They funded political candidates, think tanks and research; they lobbied in Sacramento.
A contingent decided to go to court; others scoffed at the idea that standard labor laws could be deemed unconstitutional.
The ones that opted for litigation organized under the banner of Students Matter, a Silicon Valley group founded by tech entrepreneur Dave Welch.
In his ruling this week, Judge Rolf M. Treu threw out the state’s tenure process. He stripped teachers of rules that made dismissing them more difficult and expensive. And he eliminated rules making seniority the primary factor in deciding which teachers to lay off.
In justifying his decision, Treu cited testimony that 1% to 3% of teachers in California are grossly ineffective. (Deasy said there are 350 teachers he wishes he could dismiss immediately.) And the judge echoed advocates in asserting that the state is out of step with changes that would make schools better.
Even states that have adopted sweeping changes are using vastly different approaches. When it comes to receiving tenure, for example, 32 states have a three-year period; nine states have four or five years. And four states have no tenure system at all, according to the ruling.
Additionally, states have adopted sharply different strategies for layoffs when they become necessary. Twenty states, the judge said, allow seniority to be considered among other factors; 19 (including the District of Columbia) leave the layoff process to local school districts; two prohibit considering seniority at all. Meanwhile, 10 states, including California, establish seniority as the sole or primary factor.
Treu’s data came from a Washington advocacy group, the National Council on Teacher Quality, which applauded his ruling.
California’s apparent isolation is a recent development. In 2011, for example, only 11 states required teacher performance to be a factor in layoff decisions; 18 do today, still well short of a majority, according to the group’s research. In 2007, no state mandated that student test scores be linked to teacher evaluation for tenure decisions; 20 do so today.
In the past, when it came to granting tenure, “states would look very similar to each other,” said Eric Lerum, vice president of policy for StudentsFirst, a Sacramento group that has sought to counter the influence of teacher unions in state legislatures. “Most importantly, states would not have linked tenure to effectiveness in the classroom.”
How to measure effectiveness, especially by using student test scores, is an intensely debated topic.
Some states say their schools have improved after limiting job protections for teachers and other strategies. Officials in Tennessee, for instance, assert that their efforts have moved students from low scores on standardized tests closer to average.
Others, however, point to Massachusetts, a national leader in student achievement that has had strong unions.
Some critics of the ruling said California deserves credit for pursuing its own strategies and refusing to go along with unproven or even wrong-headed reforms.
The state’s disparate path on education has included a new funding formula to provide more resources to poor and minority students. California also has joined most other states in embracing new learning goals called the Common Core.
The focus on teacher rights was making much slower headway in California until Treu sided unreservedly with advocates.
Treu delivered the first-ever judicial determination that key job protections — which teachers fought decades to achieve — are bad for students, and therefore unconstitutional, at least in California.
Similar litigation could spread to other states. A spokesman for Students Matter listed New Mexico, Oregon, Minnesota, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York as states where the Vergara arguments could target some aspects of state law.
“There are various states and districts all over the country that share some of the same types of policies and laws challenged in this lawsuit,” said Students Matter spokesman Manny Rivera.
The Vergara case, he said, “provides a road map.... We expect others will follow it.”