Education Week reports that while other states have sought to reform teacher job protections, such as tenure, seniority, and due process, through legislation, opponents in California have resorted to litigation instead to eliminate such protections. At least three lawsuits have taken aim in the past two years at district and state rules governing teacher evaluation, seniority, or due process.
One of them, Reed v. California, has already yielded a settlement shielding a handful of Los Angeles schools from seniority-based layoffs. In a second case, Doe v. Deasy, a court hearing was scheduled for this week. It seeks to enforce a state law requiring “pupil progress” as a criterion for evaluating teachers. A third lawsuit, Vergara v. California, filed just last month in Los Angeles Superior Court, and by far the most sweeping of the three, seeks to overturn five state laws relating to teacher evaluation, tenure, and due process.
In effect, the suits are slowly building the argument that equal access to good instruction is guaranteed under the state constitution, not merely equal access to funding or facilities, the basis of most prior education civil rights lawsuits in the state. “It is a modern civil rights movement that recognizes that we are not going to get the change in the law from a legislature where money is the mother’s milk of politics,” said Gloria Romero, director of the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a political action committee supportive of the Vergara lawsuit.
DFER is among the groups helping to advise Students Matter, the nonprofit organization bankrolling the Vergara lawsuit. The thread running through all three cases is that the policies violate students’ civil rights by denying them access to good teachers. The Vergara suit, for instance, contends that the laws, in conjunction, disproportionately concentrate the weakest teachers in the low-performing schools.
According to the legal complaint in Vergara, the five laws governing those policies “inevitably present a total and fatal conflict with the right to education guaranteed by the California Constitution, because it forces an arbitrary subset of California students to be educated by grossly ineffective teachers.” The Doe v. Deasy suit claims that the Los Angeles district has not complied with the state’s 40-year-old teacher evaluation statute, thus failing to ensure students are taught by teachers capable of helping students reach the state’s academic content standards.
The lawsuits have some powerful supporters, including the superintendent of the Los Angeles district, John E. Deasy. Though the district is named as a defendant in all three lawsuits, Mr. Deasy said he largely agrees with their thrust and has sought similar changes to teacher quality policies as those envisioned in the lawsuits. Mr. Deasy has, for instance, pressed the district teachers union to accept “value added” student test-score-based calculations as one of several measures for evaluating teachers, something that the United Teachers of Los Angeles has steadfastly refused to consider.
Teachers unions generally view the lawsuits as thinly-veiled attacks on unions and on teachers’ prerogatives. In addition, the Vergara suit has come under scrutiny because of its backers. The advisory board for the Students Matter group includes Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles based group that supports “parent trigger” legislation to turn around under-performing schools, and StudentsFirst, headed by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.
David F. Welch, founder of Students Matter, contends that even though the Vergara suit takes aim at some teacher dismissal protections, teachers would still be covered by state laws that give all public employees due process rights. However, Los Angeles school board member Steve Zimmer charges that the groups behind the lawsuit want to “eliminate public-sector unions.”
Source: Education Week, 6/5/12, By Stephen Sawchuk
[Editor's Note: In May 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Los Angeles Times, which reported on the Students Matter suit filed on behalf of eight students, which takes aim at California laws governing teacher tenure rules, seniority protections, and the teacher dismissal process.]