Students are shown in a Koreatown classroom. Students Matter, an organization… (Los Angeles Times )
California's tenure protections for teachers go too far, and the Legislature has been unwilling to do anything about it.
So it's easy to understand why Students Matter, an organization backed by a reform-minded entrepreneur in the Bay Area, is hoping the courts will do what lawmakers haven't. On Monday, it filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeking to overturn the statutes that undergird the tenure system. Those laws require schools to decide after 18 months whether a teacher deserves tenure, to lay off teachers based almost solely on seniority and go through an arcane, ridiculously lengthy and slanted appeals process before a bad teacher can be fired.
As much as we sympathize with the organization's goals and frustrations, though, the courts are not the right place to make school employment policy.
Students Matter rests its argument on the California Constitution's promise of a free public education and on Serrano vs. Priest, the 1970s-era case in which the courts ruled that students were entitled to a basic level of educational quality and that uneven funding unfairly deprived disadvantaged children of a high-quality education. By all but prohibiting the firing of ineffective teachers, the lawsuit claims, the state has reneged on its constitutional responsibility. In addition, it points out, tenure laws have a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged students because school districts often relegate problem teachers to schools in poor areas and because seniority rules often require those schools to fire their most effective teachers during layoffs.
In our view, California's extreme teacher protections are an obstacle to improving schools. But are they unconstitutional? If this lawsuit passes muster, almost any controversial education practice is fair game. Might the courts be asked to rule on the phonics curriculum, the length of the school day or the college-prep curriculum? Any of those could arguably be depriving disadvantaged children of a good education.
The lawsuit seeks a permanent ban on any protections for teachers, whether in labor contracts or state law, that are stronger than those for other public employees. But that's going too far. Instead of simply trying to do away with a problematic practice in order to replace it with a rational approach, this lawsuit would have the court both make new laws and rewrite collective bargaining agreements. We believe the state should streamline and balance the appeals process for fired teachers but not eliminate it. There's no evidence that doing away with reasonable protections would help schools, and it might harm them by making the teaching profession less attractive.
The lawsuit asks the court to rule on a murky, difficult-to-measure administrative employment practice that affects all schools. The Legislature has its faults, but it's a better place to have this debate.