LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — An appellate court panel in Los Angeles heard arguments but made no decision Thursday in a long-running legal battle over state employment laws governing tenure and the firing of teachers.
During an hour-long hearing in the 2nd District Court of Appeal, a three-judge panel heard arguments for and against California’s tenure system, which protects experienced teachers from layoffs and firings based on seniority.
Ted Boutrous, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that current teacher job protections result in a “dance of the lemons,” in which “grossly ineffective teachers” are simply transferred from school to school.
“It’s impossible to dismiss these teachers,” the attorney said, adding that poor teachers invariably end up in low-income and minority outposts.
Justice Brian M. Hoffstadt, though, questioned whether the plaintiffs could prove that school administrators don’t have enough power to keep that from happening.
Certain school districts have managed to apply the laws “in a way that doesn’t result in this unlawful concentration” of poor instructors, Hoffstadt pointed out.
In his turn at the podium, Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias argued that there is no evidence that students at some poor and minority schools are being harmed by the protections.
“These laws help reduce teacher attrition,” he said. “There are benefits.”
Elias also argued that school districts statewide attract educators who might otherwise be dissuaded by what they may consider low pay and difficult working conditions. In California, administrators must in effect decide whether to grant teachers tenure — permanent employment — after just 18 months.
Vergara v. California was first filed in May 2012 by an advocacy group called Students Matter, on behalf of nine young plaintiffs. It alleged that tenure laws for public school teachers violated students’ constitutional rights to an equal education and named the state and two teacher unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Theodore Boutrous argued during the Superior Court trial that tenure and other laws made it too time-consuming and expensive to dismiss ineffective educators.
But lawyer James Finberg, representing the teacher unions, countered that the laws help prevent teachers from being hired and retained for reasons involving favoritism and politics.
In June 2014, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu sided with the Students Matter and struck down the teacher tenure laws, saying students and educators alike are “disadvantaged” by the statutes. Treu issued an injunction blocking tenure laws for public school teachers, but also placed a stay on the ruling pending an appeal.
“This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason — let alone a compelling one — disadvantaged by the current permanent employment statute,” the judge wrote in his 16-page ruling.
Treu noted that teachers have a right to due process when they are being targeted for dismissal.
“However, based on the evidence before this court, it finds the current system required by the dismissal statutes to be so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory,” he wrote.
The ruling was a major blow to teachers unions, which contend the ruling will actually harm students and educators. They argue that the laws governing tenure ensure that quality teachers are in classrooms.
The court has 90 days to issue an opinion.
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