Nine public school students who have challenged California's tenure system are in court this week stating that their right to a quality education has been violated by job protections allowing bad teachers to continue teaching.
"Children have the right to access good education and an effective teacher regardless of their circumstances," said David F. Welch, the telecommunications entrepreneur who spent millions of his own dollars to create Students Matter, the organization behind the lawsuit. The group describes itself as a national nonprofit dedicated to sponsoring litigation of this type, and the outcome in California will provide the first indication of whether it can succeed.
The issue in this case is a set of rules that allows California teachers to receive tenure, or permanent employment status, after only 18 months on the job, and a seniority system that states the last teacher hired, must be the first fired if layoffs occur.
Teachers unions say the rules are necessary to protect teachers and to make sure they are not fired unfairly. They also say that without these rules it would be harder to attract new teachers.
"Tenure is an amenity, just like salary and vacation, that allows districts to recruit and retain teachers despite harder working conditions, pay that hasn't kept pace and larger class sizes," James M. Finberg, a lawyer for the California teachers' unions, said this week in his opening statement in court.
The trial will be closely watched as it could affect education laws around the country. Tenure has already been eliminated in three states and Washington DC. The case in California is the first legal challenge claiming that students are affected by the employment laws. It also uses a civil rights argument stating that poor and minority students are denied equal access to an education due to "grossly ineffective" teachers.
Jennifer Medina of the New York Times reports that witnesses are expected to explain many of their basic assumptions about how to create quality schools.
The first witness for the plaintiffs was John Deasy, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, who largely opposes the tenure rules and the "last in, first out" seniority system currently in place. He told the court that these rules make it hard not to place ineffective teachers at schools with high poverty rates.
Teachers unions have fought changes to the employment laws nationwide and say their members must be protected from unpredictable administrators. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, says that the California case is "worse than troubling".
"It's yet another example of not rolling up your sleeves and dealing with a problem, but instead finding a scapegoat," Ms. Weingarten said. "They are not suing about segregation or funding or property tax systems — all the things you really need to get kids a level playing field. They want to strip teachers of any rights to a voice."
The education laws are changing across the country. A report released by the National Council on Teacher Quality shows that school districts in 29 states now use poor effectiveness as reason for dismissal. Kate Walsh, the executive director of the center, said that number was zero five years ago.