A case involving nine California public school students is the latest battle in a nationwide challenge to hold union-backed teachers accountable for their work. The students, supported by a nonprofit organization called Students Matter, are suing the state over laws regarding teacher tenure, seniority, and other protections they say keep bad teachers in the classroom.
"The system is dysfunctional and arbitrary due to these outdated laws that handcuff school administrators," said Theodore J. Boutrous, the lead attorney on the case.
Tenure was put in place in the early 20th century to prevent teachers from being fired based on gender, nationality or political beliefs. Attorneys for the plaintiff say teachers often get tenure just for showing up for work, and after it is granted it is nearly impossible to fire the teacher. States across the country have weakened these job protections to help give administrators more flexibility to fire bad teachers. Changes are happening due to teacher performance taking place of teacher evaluation.
Teachers' unions are crying foul, saying the changes lower teacher morale, target older teachers, deny teachers due process and are too dependent on standardized tests. They say they support improving teacher evaluations and fixing the dismissal process but the changes should be made by legislature, not the courts.
The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers asked the court to throw out the lawsuit. President of the California Federation of Teachers Josh Pechthalt said:
"It is deceptive and dishonest to pretend that teacher due process rights are unfair to students. Students need a stable, experienced teaching workforce. They won't have one if this lawsuit succeeds in gutting basic teacher rights."
Judge Rolf Treu rejected the motion to dismiss; he will ultimately decide the case. The lawsuit asks the court to deem five statutes unconstitutional. One is based on tenure, three lay out steps to dismiss a teacher, and the fifth states the last hired is the last fired. The lawsuit's attorney says that the mandate hurts teachers who are talented but young.
"Every student in California should be taught by a teacher with the background and skills they need to help their students succeed," the California Department of Education said in a statement issued Sunday. "There is nothing in the law that prevents districts from making sure unqualified or unsuitable teachers don't become permanent, just as there is nothing that prevents them from removing teachers from the classroom when necessary."
The lawsuit's attorney says that by declaring the laws unconstitutional, the legislature will be able to craft legislation that does work.
Terry Moe, senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, has researched teachers' unions and says:
"Unions can make life difficult for administrators in coming years. The political pressure on the ground is strong. It's going to be really difficult to follow through on these new laws and put a dent in teacher tenure and really do away with the role of seniority."