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Calif. Lawsuit Challenges Teacher Tenure, Layoff, Due-Process Statutes

A handful of California parents have sued the state over five laws that allegedly concentrate poorly performing teachers in schools that primarily serve disadvantaged and minority students.

Filed today in the California superior court, the lawsuit takes aim at California rules that: require tenure be granted after only two years, before a teacher's performance has been well documented; create some dozen steps in the due-process procedures for dismissing teachers for poor performance, which the plaintiffs say allows that process to drag on for months or years; and mandate that seniority serve the major factor (barring a few exceptions) in determining which teachers are laid off during reductions-in-force.

The combination of these statutes, the filing reads, "inevitably presents 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 who fail to provide them with the basic tools necessary to compete in the economic marketplace or participate in a democratic society."

Named in the lawsuit are the Los Angeles and Alum Rock Union school districts, Governor Jerry Brown, schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson, the California education department, and the California board of education. It seeks an injunction against the five statutes in question.

This is one in what appears to be an increasing number of lawsuits in the state that say students' educational civil rights are violated by its own education laws. Two years ago, plaintiffs won a settlement barring seniority-based layoffs in certain Los Angeles schools in a lawsuit that drew on a similar argument. More recently, another group of parents sued over the issue of teacher evaluations; it contends that the state has not followed a 40-year-old state law requiring that pupil progress be counted in teacher evaluations.

The lawsuit was sponsored by a California nonprofit group called Students Matter. Students Matter was advised by a committee including a bunch of other education advocacy groups—some controversial in the field—including Democrats for Education Reform, Parent Revolution, StudentsFirst, and the Education Trust-West.

A few other interesting things to note in this lawsuit. First, it leans heavily on value-added research, referencing economist Eric A. Hanushek's work (particularly this study) and a second, recent study that connected better teaching to higher lifetime earnings. It also cites a number of stories in the California press about the difficulty and expense of dismissing tenured teachers. Finally, litigators Theodore Olson and Theodore Boutrous are among the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. They're also the lead attorneys on an effort to overthrow California's controversial Proposition 8, which barred same-sex marriage in the state.

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