Nine students who are suing their state say that California's laws surrounding teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoffs violate the state's constitution — specifically, students' rights to an equal opportunity to access quality education, with the trial set to begin on January 27th.
The effects of their victory could ripple across the country.
"I think any time that you see a genuine reform in California, you empower reformers everywhere in the country who realize if you can actually fix something like that in California, you can fix it anywhere," said Ed Ring, executive director of the California Public Policy Center.
Minority and poor students are most in need of effective teachers and least likely, in California, to be taught by them as argued by plaintiffs.
"Research has shown that inside the school building, nothing matters more than the quality of the teachers," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president for National Council on Teacher Quality. "An effective teacher and a highly effective teacher make a really significant difference in the trajectory of their students, and the same is true in the negative capacity for an ineffective teacher."
However, she said that other factors, like parents' level of education, are also correlated with student performance, but as far as factors schools can control, teacher quality matters more than any other variable.
"Ineffective teachers are entrenched in California's public school system," a press release issued by Students Matter, which is sponsoring the case states. "The superintendents of many school districts affirm that their districts are beleaguered by grossly ineffective teachers and attribute the continued employment of these teachers to the challenged statutes."
As Mary C. Tilloston of Watchdog.org reports, the California Teachers Association, a teachers union, has intervened in the lawsuit hoping the state will prevail.
As argued by plaintiffs, relatively new teachers are granted "permanent employment" status after 18 months, long before the school district can determine whether the teacher is effective. CTA spokesman Frank Wells argues that that is enough time to evaluate a teacher, and if it isn't being done, school officials may need more resources. Plaintiffs also argue that the dismissal process for ineffective teachers is long and cumbersome, preventing principals from firing ineffective teachers.
"The principals I've known would like that power [to dismiss ineffective teachers] because they know a bad teacher when they see one, and they know a good teacher when they see one, and they're hamstrung by the rules," said Larry Sand, a retired California teacher of 24 years and president of California Teachers Empowerment Network.
Wells said that the dismissal process should be streamlined, but CTA supports using the lawmaking process, not the court system, to implement the best system. He said that ineffective teachers are quietly "counseled out" of teaching more often than they are dismissed.
Nonetheless, plaintiffs argue that when teachers are laid off, the least effective should be the first to go, challenging the current system of laying off teachers with the least seniority.
"The Last-In, First-Out Statute requires school districts to leave grossly ineffective teachers in the classroom while laying off exceptional teachers," according to Students Matter.
However, Jacobs believe that when done right, teachers' evaluation can provide valuable insight for administrators to tailor professional development to teachers needing support in specific skills, and can help districts make good hiring decisions. In addition, she said that administrators need the ability to dismiss teachers who are not improving even with professional development.