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Suit attacks teacher employment rules, students say they protect bad educators

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POSTED May 15, 2012 6:53 p.m.


 

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lawyers for seven California schoolchildren are suing the state in an attempt to overturn five laws that they say violate their constitutional right to a fair education because they protect bad teachers.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, is the most sweeping challenge to date of teacher tenure, dismissal procedures and seniority-based layoffs — three longtime tenets of the teaching profession that have fallen under increasingly sharp criticism in recent years but are fiercely protected by unions.

The suit called the set of laws a "statutory scheme" that keeps ineffective teachers in classrooms, particularly in low-income schools.

"These state laws create inequalities by depriving students taught by ineffective teachers of the fundamental right to education guaranteed by the state constitution," said Theodore Boutrous, one of the lawyers filing the suit. "These statutes prevent school administrators from prioritizing or even considering the interests of their students when making employment and dismissal decisions."

The lawsuit, sponsored by nonprofit education reform group Students Matter, was filed against the state and Gov. Jerry Brown, as well as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and the state Department of Education and board of education, and two school districts: Los Angeles Unified and Alum Rock Union Elementary in San Jose.

The Department of Education had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment on it, a spokeswoman said.

In a statement, Alum Rock Superintendent Jose L. Manzo said the lawsuit was simply a vehicle by which to challenge California's education laws, and the district's inclusion was incidental. The district works with its teachers to negotiate an equitable contract that prioritizes student education, Manzo said.

The lawsuit reflects a rising sentiment in the education reform community that teacher employment rules are a key factor holding back schools from making meaningful advances in improving academic achievement.

New teachers are routinely granted tenure, for example, with little thought in evaluating whether a candidate is good at the job, the suit stated.

Once tenured, teachers are extremely difficult to fire, even when their conduct has been egregious.

Teacher dismissal is a labyrinthine, 12-step process that can take years and cost a district hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and continued salary payment to teachers who are under review, the suit said.

Many districts, instead, simply shunt bad teachers from school to school in what the lawsuit says is called "the dance of the lemons," or some elect to pay off a teacher to resign or retire.

In a case last year, LAUSD elected to pay a $40,000 settlement to a third-grade teacher who was arrested on charges of committing lewd acts with students so he would retire and drop his appeals.

The lawsuit also takes issue with seniority-based layoffs, saying that low-income schools are disproportionately affected because they often employ new teachers.

A previous court challenge to seniority-based layoffs was successful, but it only affected 45 low performing Los Angeles Unified schools. A judge ruled last year that those schools had to be exempt from further mass layoffs because a succession of substitute teachers was affecting children's learning.

The suit said that as a result of these employment rules, the quality of teachers in classroom can be arbitrary.

"Those statutes thus make the quality of education provided to school-age children in California a function of race and/or wealth of a child's parents and neighbors in violation of the equal protection provisions of the California Constitution," the lawsuit stated.

 

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