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Lawsuit: California laws protect teachers at cost of students' right to education

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Attorneys representing eight schoolchildren are suing California because they say the state's laws on teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissal violate students' constitutional right to an education by protecting ineffective teachers.

The suit, filed Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, is backed by a nonprofit education reform group called Students Matter. It names the state, Gov. Jerry Brown, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the California Department of Education, the state Board of Education, L.A. Unified and Alum Rock Union School District as defendants.

Five of the eight students attend L.A. Unified schools, while the remainder attend schools in Pasadena Unified, Sequoia Union High School District, and Alum Rock Union School District.

The suit blames five California laws, dubbed the "Challenged Statutes," on teacher tenure, seniority-based layoffs, and the dismissal process, for denying administrators the flexibility to staff their schools effectively.

For example, by law administrators must grant new teachers "permanent employment" after 18 months, before it is possible to determine their effectiveness, the suit states.

"By forcing these critical decisions to be made primarily or exclusively on grounds other than students' need for effective teachers...these laws infringe upon California students' fundamental right to education," the lawsuit states.

The suit states that the laws bestow "super" due process rights on teachers, for example in the onerous and complex dismissal process, that ultimately infringe on the rights of students to effective teachers.

In a recent case, L.A. Unified agreed to pay one teacher accused of lewd conduct with students $40,000 to avoid the lengthy dismissal and appeals process that can sometimes drag on for years and cost the district many thousands of dollars. 

Because of such laws, the suit states that these ineffective teachers end up taking part in the "dance of the lemons" as administrators transfer them from school to school; ultimately, they are also more likely to be assigned to schools serving larger numbers of minority and lower-income students.

Unions have fought to protect these processes as they have come increasingly under attack over the last few years. United Teachers Los Angeles is appealing a settlement in Reed vs. L.A. Unified that protects 45 schools in lower-income areas from layoffs by seniority, after a lawsuit argued the layoff process impacted such schools so severely it compromised students' constitutional rights.

Meanwhile, state legislators are looking at bills that aim to change the education code so as to speed the process of teacher dismissal in certain misconduct cases.

"We are challenging a system that was fashioned by special interests and has burdened our schools with an inflexible environment for hiring and retaining the best teachers," said Students Matter founder Dave Welch in a statement released today. "This system is not designed to benefit students, and that's unacceptable."

A spokesman with the state's Department of Education said the agency has not yet been served and so cannot comment on the lawsuit. L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy said in a statement released today that he is reviewing the lawsuit.

Deasy said he supports reforming the state's layoff process, lengthening the amount of time a teacher must work before receiving tenure, and speeding up the dismissal process. Due to state budget cuts, the district has had to lay off more than 8,000 employees in the last four years; this year it sent out roughly 9,500 preliminary pink slips to teachers and health and human service professionals.

Attorneys for L.A. Unified will make a formal response to the lawsuit in the coming months, according to the statement.

"It is my sincere hope that we can be relieved from this burdensome last hired, first fired rule so that we have the flexibility to provide students with the best and brightest instructors we can give them," Deasy said. "Their futures depend on it."

Alum Rock Union Elementary School District Superintendent Jose L. Manzo said in a statement released today that the district views the lawsuit and their inclusion in it "simply as a vehicle by which the complainants have the ability to challenge the State of California's education laws."

"As far as our District is concerned," Manzo said, "we will continue to work with our teachers to negotiate a fair and equitable contract that establishes the education of our students as our top priority."

This story has been updated.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).