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Students vs. Teachers
Students Challenge California's Teacher Tenure Laws in Court

Education reform stories are usually billed as a battle between heartless right-wing politicians and left-leaning teacher’s unions—who are fighting for the children, of course. A group of nine California students has turned this narrative on its head, teaming up with a wealthy Silicon Vally entrepreneur and Bush v. Gore lawyer Ted Olsen to mount a legal challenge to the state’s strict rules on the hiring and firing of teachers.

Under current law, California teachers are guaranteed a job after 18 months of work, and state regulations make it exceedingly difficult to fire underperforming teachers. When layoffs do occur, teachers are dismissed based on seniority rules rather than the quality of their work. The NYT explains the arguments the group is using to attack the law:

The first witness for the plaintiffs was John E. Deasy, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District and a staunch opponent of tenure rules and “last in, first out” seniority for teachers. Mr. Deasy testified that attempts to dismiss ineffective teachers can cost $250,000 to $450,000 and include years of appeals and legal proceedings. Often, he said, the district is forced to decide that the time and money would be too much to spend on a case with an unclear outcome, in part because a separate governing board can reinstate the teachers. Such rules make it impossible not to place ineffective teachers at schools with high poverty rates, he told the court.

“I absolutely do not believe it’s in the best interest of students whatsoever,” Mr. Deasy said of the layoff policy. “The decision about who should be in front of students should be the most effective teacher. These statutes prohibit that from being a consideration at all. By virtue of that, it cannot be good for students.”

This case is important to watch because it could tip the dominos across the country. If tenure rules are struck down in California, we may see more cases like this springing up elsewhere.

But the case also raises a more central ethical question: Does a child’s right to a good education outweigh a teacher’s right to job security? Morally, the kid’s right is clearly superior. As a matter of law, we shall see.

[Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that teachers receive guaranteed employent after one year of work. This has been corrected to 18 months.]

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  • rheddles

    The right to a public education is usually written into the state constitution. I can’t speak for all states, but in mine, tenure is a contractual term, not a constitutional right. I doubt there will be much legal contention about which is superior. The difficulty will be in establishing that the constitutional right is being denied, and that the contract term causes the denial of the constitutional right.

  • Corlyss
  • Peter

    Tenure is a relic of a failed system of education and should be ended. No one deserves a job for life.

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