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A view of the defendant's table in a courtroom at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
The major players in California public education will face off in an unusual trial in a Los Angeles next week, where a judge will be asked to determine whether California teacher job protections interfere with students' constitutional right to an adequate education.
The lawsuit is being financed by Students Matter, a non-profit belonging to wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, a charter school advocate. And the California Teachers Association is paying for lawyers on the defense team.
“This is a major case for California schools,” said well-known lawyer Ted Boutrous, who heads the plaintiff's team. “We are challenging the system..."
Boutrous, who successfully argued against California’s ban on same sex marriage at the US Supreme Court last year, argues the state is putting teachers above students by using seniority - not teacher quality – to determine who gets laid off, and by giving teachers permanent job status after only 18 months.
“We have parents who are going to show that these statutes are having a real and appreciable impact - that they are creating inequality," he said. He argues job protections reduce the quality of California’s teacher corps, leaving ineffective teachers on the job in violation of every California child’s constitutional right to an adequate public education.
Jim Finberg, a lawyer hired by the teachers’ unions on the defense side, said the teacher protection laws are legal - and good for kids.
“Labor economists will tell you that if you take job security away from people that you need to raise salaries in order to recruit and retain people of the same quality,” he said. “Nobody cares more about the students of California having a good education than the members of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.”
The suit, Vergara v. State of California, was brought on behalf of teenager Beatriz Vergara and eight other named California public school students. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu will preside over testimony and render a verdict in the bench trial. Opening statements are expected Monday.
The witness list is long, over 100 possible witnesses, including Governor Jerry Brown, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy, and other local school officials - and the presidents of California’s largest public school teachers unions.
Cal State Fullerton politics professor Sarah Hill said the plaintiffs face an uphill battle proving these protections directly deprive students of an adequate education.
“It’s difficult to prove, you have to show that students are not getting the basics they have to get," she said. "If some students are getting more, that’s fine, but to show that students can’t even get a minimal education, it’s tough to show.”
This is clearly the latest salvo, she said, in an ongoing battle in California and the rest of the country over the future of public schools. Both sides have faced off on use of student test scores in teacher evaluations and public funding of charter schools.