A group of parents and education advocates is preparing to sue the Los Angeles school district, demanding that it follow an arcane 40-year-old law that requires all California school systems to link teacher and principal evaluations to student performance.
The law, known as the Stull Act, was passed in 1971 with bipartisan support although neither school district officials nor teachers unions ever pushed to enforce all of its provisions, with their potential for conflict.
Now, with L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy locked in a stalemate with the teachers union over performance reviews, a prominent group of advocates believes it can force the issue with a lawsuit, which is expected to be filed Tuesday.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article named Netflix founder Reed Hastings and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan as members of the EdVoice board. They are no longer on the board.
Although the lawsuit would be technically filed against L.A. Unified, its underlying target is the teachers union, which has fought efforts to make student test scores any part of evaluations. United Teachers Los Angeles leaders say tests scores are too unreliable and narrowly focused to use for high-stakes personnel decisions.
The issue is bigger than L.A. Unified, said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy group not involved in the pending litigation.
"This has implications for every school district in California," he said. "This has the potential to put districts on notice that they should be fundamentally rethinking their evaluation systems."
The lawsuit was drafted in consultation with EdVoice, a Sacramento-based group. Its board includes arts and education philanthropist Eli Broad, former ambassador Frank Baxter and healthcare company executive Richard Merkin.
Tracking student progress "is a required element of evaluations, and the union and district cannot bargain it away," said attorney Scott Witlin, whose firm, Barnes & Thornburg, is preparing the suit. "If the adults in the system can't get their acts together to comply with the law, then people have to intervene and force them to comply."
The Stull Act demand surfaced in an Oct. 26 letter giving L.A. Unified until the close of business Monday to demonstrate that it will follow state law regarding teacher evaluations.
The district "refuses to implement the Stull Act in complete abdication of its responsibility to its students, their parents and the taxpayers of the district," states the letter, signed by attorney R. DeWitt Kirwan. "We demand that this change."
The timing is no accident. District officials had set Tuesday as the deadline for settling key contract provisions, including some involving evaluations.
Nationwide, a growing number of school systems and states have begun to include student data in teacher evaluations. The approach is strongly backed by the Obama administration, although California has not followed the trend.
Forty years ago, however, California was on the vanguard of evaluating teachers. Former Republican Assemblyman John Stull of San Diego sought to ensure that teachers and principals would be accountable for the academic performance of students. He also wanted teachers to receive the help they needed to be effective.
Stull's bill received mixed support from unions: The California Teachers Assn. backed it; the California Federation of Teachers opposed it. Among other provisions, the law set up a three-person panel that would review teacher dismissals. Previously, a district went to Superior Court to fire a tenured teacher, said education consultant John Mockler, who developed the original legislation with Stull.
As a conservative who believed in local control, Stull trusted school districts to develop their own evaluation systems that included student performance, Mockler said. But that didn't happen.
"The Stull Act has become a very cursory process, and it hasn't provided support to teachers," said UTLA President Warren Fletcher, echoing the view of district officials and advocates.
School districts and unions ultimately agreed to evaluation systems that declared virtually every educator satisfactory and set aside more contentious questions of whether students were learning.
Only now, with the school district and the union unable to agree on teacher evaluations, has the Stull Act been resurrected.
The Stull Act is imprecise on the type of evaluation measure to use. Some teachers, for example, might prefer using a portfolio of student work to demonstrate academic progress rather than a standardized test score.
But under the law, Deasy said, the district can decide how teachers will be evaluated.
The union's Fletcher said state law requires any teacher evaluation system to be negotiated with teachers.
"If the district is interested in putting together a reasonable, intellectually honest — and legal — evaluation system, you have to have teachers involved," Fletcher said.
Deasy responded by saying that the union's right to negotiations is far more limited. It applies, for example, to whether teachers would receive more pay for extra work in a new system but not to determining the evaluation method itself.
Witlin, the attorney, said his group would sue to stop any contract between the district and teachers that did not include all the requirements of the Stull Act. Deasy also said he would not ink such a deal.
The litigation would mark the second time that outside parties have turned to the courts to exert pressure for a school-improvement policy opposed at the negotiating table by the teachers union.
The tactic was used last year in a suit supported by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and public interest attorneys. It resulted in a settlement that protected schools from being affected disproportionately by layoffs that were formerly based only on seniority.
This lawsuit "could build on the success of our court victory … providing a legal framework to allow teachers, parents and students to improve learning in schools," Villaraigosa said.