Closing arguments in major California education reform case

Nine California public school students say the state's laws for hiring and firing teachers has led to substandard teaching and education. They want the laws thrown out.

Nick Ut/AP/File
Nine California public school students who are suing the state to abolish its laws on teacher tenure, seniority, and other protections, attend a news conference with their lawyers outside the Los Angeles Superior Court earlier this year.

Lawyers made closing arguments Thursday in a California trial that could have far-reaching consequences for how teachers at public schools are hired and fired.

Nine public school students suing the state say several education laws are so misguided that they saddle schools with substandard teachers who are then nearly impossible to dismiss. The students are backed by a Silicon Valley mogul who is pushing for greater teacher accountability and standardized testing.

A victory by the students would force the state Legislature to become involved and could ripple across the country.

"A successful challenge to these teacher tenure regulations could lead to other efforts around the country, just as public employee unions are being criticized in other contexts," says Michael Moreland, a professor at Villanova University School of Law in Philadelphia.

Among the laws targeted in the lawsuit:

  • Tenure laws that mandate that school districts make teacher tenure decisions after just 18 months – too short a time to properly assess quality, plaintiffs say. 
  • Dismissal regulations that are so time consuming, costly, and burdensome that it is nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers, the plaintiffs say. Teachers unions say these laws provide essential protections.
  • Requirements that districts use quality-blind layoff procedures, such as seniority, when making layoffs.

“It is my hope that this trial will lead to a paradigm shift in our education system," said David Welch, the billionaire founder of Students Matter who is bankrolling the lawsuit, at a press conference after the plaintiffs lawyers' concluded their closing arguments. "It is imperative that we start looking at education through the lens of children and asking ourselves: 'Is this really what’s best for students?’ ”

The defense, including the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, maintains that the core teacher protections, such as tenure, are critical to attracting and retaining the best teachers.

Despite some problems, California laws governing teacher tenure, seniority, and dismissal adequately serve public education, defense lawyers argued.

They cited Linda Darling-Hammond of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, who had testified earlier that well-managed school districts can easily identify grossly ineffective teachers within the two-year tenure time frame.

Moreover, standardized tests narrow the curriculum and hurt teachers by, in effect, making them responsible for student outcomes that are affected by many factors outside the classroom, the defense suggested.

"In my opinion, based upon my experience, it would be a narrowing of the curriculum if we simply had teacher evaluations based on a standardized test score,” said Robert Fraisse, a former superintendent in three California school districts, in earlier testimony.

But the plaintiffs' lawyers pointed to expert testimony, too. They quoted defendant witness David Berliner, who said “a probationary period of three or even five years would be better than two years to make the tenure decision.” And they quoted Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University, who said “dismissal is so expensive and time-consuming that administrators believe it is impossible to dismiss a tenured teacher.”

They also turned to other points of Professor Darling-Hammond's testimony, such as when she said “California has failed and is failing to provide equal educational opportunities to all of its public schools students, primarily failing poor and minority students.”

Legal analysts say Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu's decision is expected within the next two months; there is no jury in the case. Judge Treu can strike down some or all of the laws.

Independent of this case, California voters may face a similar ballot initiative on the topic.

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