In battle over teacher tenure, California court sides with unions

California's 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed a lower court's decision in favor of students challenging the state's teacher tenure system, saying the students failed to prove the laws were unconstitutional. 

Nick Ut/ AP/ File
California high school student Raylene Monterroza takes questions from the media, as she is joined by eight other public school students who are suing the state to abolish its laws on teacher tenure, seniority and other protections, during a news conference outside the Los Angeles Superior Court in Los Angeles in this January 2015 file photo. On Thursday, April 14, 2016, the 2nd District Court of Appeal said the students had failed to show California's hiring and firing rules were unconstitutional.

A California appeals court has granted the state's teachers union a victory in their fight to maintain the tenure system, a decision that comes in the midst of similar battles in Minnesota and New York.

The Thursday by California's 2nd District Court of Appeal reverses a Los Angeles trial judge's ruling two years ago that the state’s tenure laws could deprive students of a good public education by making it difficult to fire incompetent teachers.

State tenure laws have increasingly been scrutinized, facing legal challenges in New York and Minnesota. Many opponents criticize so-called "last in, first out" layoff rules which, they argue, punish newer teachers who haven't yet won tenure. But educators and teachers unions argue that the laws provide essential due process rights and academic freedom to teachers.

In California, the nine students and a nonprofit group that backed them had argued that schools in poor neighborhoods and with more students of color were more likely to receive teachers who were "grossly ineffective."

Opponents of the 2014 decision in Vergara v. State of California argued the tenure laws provided needed protections for teachers.
"Stripping teachers of their ability to stand up for their students and robbing school districts of the tools they need to make sound employment decisions was a wrong-headed scheme developed by people with no education expertise and the appellate court justices saw that," California Teachers Association president Eric Heins said in a statement.

But the appeals court said it ruled based on students' failure to prove that the state’s tenure laws were unconstitutional.

"The court's job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are 'a good idea,'" presiding Justice Roger Boren wrote in the 3-0 decision.

Lawyers for the students, who have been backed by a non-profit founded by Silicon Valley tech leader David Welch, called the court's decision a "temporary setback," saying they expected to appeal the decision to California's Supreme Court.

"The Court of Appeal's decision mistakenly blames local school districts for the egregious constitutional violations students are suffering each and every day," attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. said in a statement. "The irrational, arbitrary, and abominable laws at issue in this case shackle school districts and impose severe and irreparable harm on students."

In its decision, the appeal court said that while the trial showed the "deleterious impact" of staffing decisions on low-income students and students of color, and raised problems with how tenure and layoffs were determined, the state's law were not the cause.

"Some principals rid their schools of highly ineffective teachers by transferring them to other schools, often to low-income schools," the judges wrote. "This phenomenon is extremely troubling and should not be allowed to occur, but it does not inevitably flow from the challenged statutes."

The decision came as four Minnesota parents were set to file a lawsuit on Thursday challenging the state's tenure system, which provides protection against layoffs of tenured teachers after three years on the job.

"I couldn't understand how an excellent teacher could be laid off," lead plaintiff Tiffini Forslund told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, describing how she was inspired to file the suit after her daughter's fifth-grade teacher was laid off after one year of teaching. "He outshined any teacher I had ever had or any of my kids had," she said.

Previously, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said some employment rules for teachers are "problematic" and should to be reworked, though she has argued the Vergara decision takes the wrong approach by eliminating due process for teachers.

On Thursday, she hailed the California court's decision to reverse the 2014 ruling. "You can't fire your way to a teaching force," she told the Los Angeles Times.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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