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Lawsuit takes aim at California's legal protections for teachers

A Bay Area nonprofit targets teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the dismissal process. Foes say it wants to weaken public sector unions.

May 16, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

A Bay Area nonprofit backed partly by groups known for battling teachers unions has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn five California laws that, they say, make it too difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight students, takes aim at California laws that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the teacher dismissal process.

"A handful of outdated laws passed by the California Legislature are preventing school administrators from maintaining or improving the quality of our public educational system," according to the lawsuit, which was filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court and announced Tuesday.

The group behind the legal action is the newly formed Students Matter. The founder is Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch and the group's funders include the foundation of L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad.

The suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly — in two years — well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of first laying off less experienced teachers during a budget crisis, rather than keeping the best teachers. And it takes aim at a dismissal process that, it alleges, is too costly, too lengthy and typically results in ineffective teachers holding on to jobs.

The move to address teacher quality has become a national issue from the Obama administration on down. In California, officials supported by powerful teachers unions have been reluctant or opposed to changing teacher job protections. Advocates, instead, are turning to the courts.

Such efforts are misguided at best, especially at a time when sweeping budget cuts have decimated schools, said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers.

"We should be fighting like crazy to make sure schools are not laying off any teachers, except those who shouldn't be in front of a classroom," he said. And, he said, those teachers can be dealt with under current laws if school systems have sufficient resources and use them properly.

This latest legal effort is the most sweeping of several underway — all of which affect the Los Angeles Unified School District. The first, Reed vs. L.A. Unified, resulted in a settlement that allows the nation's second-largest district to bypass some campuses when layoffs are necessary. The teachers union has appealed.

A coalition of allied groups called Monday for the teachers union to drop its appeal. Their event was held across from Liechty Middle School, a campus exempted from layoffs under the settlement.

Another ongoing case alleges that L.A. Unified is not following state laws that mandate regular teacher evaluations and that they need to include evidence of student achievement.

The defendants in the latest litigation include state elected officials, L.A. Unified and a San Jose school district.

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy commended the intent of the advocates for trying to force needed changes. The lawsuit "is aggressively going after long-term issues which have thwarted the rights of students to a high-quality education," Deasy said.

The L.A. school board has supported speeding up teacher dismissals. Deasy also wants to extend the time needed to earn tenure. The lawsuit does not propose specific solutions to the laws it deems objectionable.

Within L.A. Unified, Deasy has moved ahead with developing and testing a new evaluation system that incorporates student test scores. He said such a system would provide a clear view of which teachers are effective — whether the purpose is to decide whom to lay off or whom to help.

The teachers union has challenged Deasy's decision to impose the new system before a state labor board.

The advisory committee of Students Matter includes Students First, a group headed by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee; Democrats for Education Reform, whose California branch is led by former state Sen. Gloria Romero; and Parent Revolution, which organizes parents to compel dramatic changes at local schools through so-called parent-trigger laws. All of these have faced off against teacher unions in the past.

The legal team includes Theodore B. Olson, a U.S. solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, and Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Both represented activists who successfully overturned California's ban on gay marriage.

L.A. school board member Steve Zimmer said he detected an underlying anti-union agenda.

"What matters to the folks who fund this is not students, it's eliminating public sector unions," he said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar contributed to this report.

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