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.