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California students sue to overturn teacher protection laws

Published: Sunday, June 1 2014 9:28 a.m. MDT

California public school students are suing the state over its laws on teacher tenure, seniority and other protections that the plaintiffs say keep bad educators in classrooms.

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After two years of delay, a nonprofit advocacy group representing a handful of California students is finally getting a trial on its challenge to California statutes that, critics say, protect teachers' jobs and seniority at the expense of student learning.

The case, Vegera v. California, was filed by Students Matter, founded in 2010 by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch. The suit targets three state statutes, claiming they run afoul of the state Supreme Court's holding that every child has a right to a quality education.

In the crosshairs is a statute that grants permanent employment status after 18 months to teachers before administrators can assure their effectiveness, critics argue. Another creates byzantine procedures to dismiss incompetent teachers, and a third requires districts to lay off newer teachers first, even if they are proven performers.

At the Daily Beast, Campbell Brown calls the case "the most important case you've never heard of."

"Nine public school children have been courageously taking on the government in California, where their right to a sound education is rooted in the Constitution," Brown writes. "A judge’s decision is expected soon, and their lawsuit is being watched closely in education circles. Given the stakes, Vergara v. California — so named for one of the plaintiffs, student Beatriz Vergara — deserves even wider attention."

"Win or lose," Brown argues, "these students are reminding us of the activism that is born out of the inaction of our leaders and the frustration driven by inequity in education. Children and parents have resorted to acting on their own, finding inspiration in desperation."

But teachers unions are not amused and have vigorously contested the case.

"The unions argue that the rules protecting teachers are needed for school districts to attract and retain good teachers and to ensure that employees are not fired for arbitrary or unfair reasons," Pew's Stateline newsletter reported. "They say the real issues holding back student achievement are inadequate resources, large class sizes and lack of parental involvement."

The California suit is one more front in an ongoing war, Stateline notes. North Carolina, South Dakota, Idaho, Arizona, Louisiana, Virginia and Connecticut have all made teacher tenure either harder to get or eliminated it altogether in recent years.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

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