By Jennifer Medina
LOS ANGELES — These are two vastly different portraits of California’s education system. In one, poor and minority students are frequently placed in front of incompetent teachers whose blackboards are filled with basic misspellings and who play irrelevant movies instead of devising lesson plans for class time.
In the other, the vast majority of teachers are providing students with all they need to learn, and well-run school districts are able to ferret out and dismiss the ones who are not.
For more than two months, lawyers have been arguing in state court over whether California’s laws governing teacher tenure, firing and layoffs violate students’ constitutional right to an education. And by the beginning of July, Rolf Treu, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, will deliver the first legal ruling on the case, which has attracted national attention.
In states around the country, opponents of tenure rules, who have tried and largely failed to bring about changes through state legislatures, are looking to this case as a test of whether taking their arguments to court could prove more successful.
Lawyers for the students named in the case, Vergara v. California, have argued that California students are subject to an unfair system that deprives them of a fair education, which translates into the loss of millions of dollars in potential earnings over their lifetimes. But lawyers for the state and the teachers’ unions counter that the problems in the system have little or nothing to do with the rules that govern how teachers are hired and fired.
In many ways, the case echoes the political debate over tenure that has gone on for years. Some school superintendents and education advocates have pushed to loosen laws granting teachers permanent employment status, which they argue are anachronistic and harmful. Unions and their allies, however, say such laws are necessary to protect teachers.
Three states and the District of Columbia have eliminated tenure, and a few other states prohibit using seniority as the primary criterion to determine who is laid off. But efforts to enact similar changes have repeatedly failed in California and New York, where teachers’ unions hold considerable sway over the state legislatures.
Students Matter, a group backed by David F. Welch, a Silicon Valley technology magnate, recruited a group of students to file as plaintiffs against the state of California and hired a high-profile legal team to try to win the debate in the courtroom. No matter what Judge Treu decides, the case will almost certainly be appealed, and Welch has said he plans to help bring similar cases around the country.
Under California law, teachers are eligible for tenure after 18 months on the job, and the teachers who are hired most recently are the first to lose their jobs during layoffs. School administrators who try to dismiss a teacher with tenure for poor performance must complete a lengthy procedure.
“Students taught by grossly ineffective teachers fall behind for years,” said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, who is best known for winning the case that struck down California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Students who are taught by such teachers lose up to $1.4 million in lifetime earnings compared with those who are taught by average teachers, according to a study by Raj Chetty, an economics professor at Harvard who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs.
In another study cited in court testimony, students in the Los Angeles Unified School District lost a full year’s worth of learning when they were placed with teachers in the bottom 5 percent of the district in terms of effectiveness. Assuming that 1 percent of the state’s roughly 275,000 teachers are ineffective, it would take more than 12 years to dismiss them all, according to the plaintiffs’ closing brief. And according to the plaintiffs, students who are black, Latino or poor are far more likely to be placed with a low-performing teacher than their white and more affluent peers.
“Even if funding and time in school are equal, students still cannot be assured of equal educational opportunities unless they have equal access to effective teachers,” Boutrous wrote in the final brief, submitted last week.
But lawyers for the state and the teachers’ unions say that while the plaintiffs have relied on complicated algorithms and emotional speech, they have done nothing to prove that students’ constitutional rights are being violated by existing teacher employment laws. In fact, the state’s lawyers argued in closing briefs, one of the teachers cited by plaintiffs as “grossly ineffective” was awarded “Teacher of the Year” by the Pasadena school district.
“Due process ensures that competent teachers aren’t dismissed unfairly or improperly,” James Finberg, a lawyer for the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, wrote in his closing brief. The achievement gap, as the disparity between wealthy white students and poor minority students is often called, “has many causes, the majority of which involve out-of-school factors,” Finberg wrote, before arguing that high teacher turnover in low-income schools could be improved with additional funding, not a change in employment law.