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Can a lawsuit by nine students topple teacher tenure?

March 29, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Arguments ended this week in a landmark California lawsuit in which nine public school students sued to overturn the state's teacher tenure laws. Will the outcome spell the end of some prized teacher rights? Experts say the case could impact education reform efforts nationwide.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Sisters Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara attend public high school in a low-income, mostly Hispanic section of northern Los Angeles.  The girls are aiming for college, and would be the first in the family with higher degrees.

But the Vergara sisters say that in middle school, they faced obstacles in pursuing their education – chaotic classrooms and little to no instruction.  Elizabeth, now a junior, and Beatriz, a sophomore, say back in 7th grade, they both had a particularly bad history teacher.

ELIZABETH VERGARA: He would just be at his desk.  Like, just using his computer or sleeping.  And students were just using their magazines and he wouldn’t care.  They would be throwing food or, like, stuff.   And I didn’t even learn anything.  Like, I was getting behind.

BEATRIZ VERGARA: And he would let students smoke marijuana –

MEGAN THOMPSON: They were smoking marijuana in class?

BEATRIZ VERGARA: Yeah.  I know, it’s hard to believe.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Beatriz also says a science teacher was offensive.

BEATRIZ VERGARA:   She would call this girl “whore,” and, like, “Slut, go over there.  Stop flirting.”  And then, yeah, it was horrible.

MEGAN THOMPSON: What went through your mind when you heard that?

BEATRIZ VERGARA: I don’t know, it wasn’t right.  A teacher should not offend you.  I was scared to ask questions ’cause I didn’t want her to, like, I didn’t want her to offend me.

ALICIA MARTINEZ (Spanish):  They were really being traumatized by these teachers.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Beatriz and Elizabeth’s mother Alicia Martinez, who emigrated from Mexico, says she complained to a school administrator about the two teachers – and two others.  But, she says, nothing happened.

ALICIA MARTINEZ (Spanish): He didn’t do anything to address the situation.  They didn’t take me seriously.

Courtroom sound:  You do solemnly state that the testimony you may give…

MEGAN THOMPSON:  So in 2012 Martinez volunteered her daughters to join a lawsuit against the state and the teachers unions that went to trial in January.

Teacher tenure in flux around the nation

Teacher tenure in flux around the nation

ELIZABETH VERGARA IN COURT:  I just felt that I was wasting my time, not learning anything.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  The nine student plaintiffs in the case – known as Vergara v. California – are challenging two main areas of state law:  permanent employment and dismissal statutes the plaintiffs say make it difficult to get rid of bad teachers, and the seniority-based layoff system, which they say makes it hard to keep good, less-senior teachers during difficult times.

BRANDON:  There were certain teachers that you knew, if you got stuck in their class, you wouldn’t learn a thing.

KATE:  Instead of learning our subject, we sat in class coloring and watching YouTube videos.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The plaintiffs say the laws deny students their right to a quality education, guaranteed by the California constitution, and affect poor and minority students more.  If successful, experts say the legal strategy could be used to challenge education laws in other states.

DAVID WELCH: Our education system delivers a constitutional right so there’s a certain responsibility of our society to deliver.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  David Welch is a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded and largely finances Students Matter – an education-reform group that spearheaded the lawsuit. As of 2012, Welch had donated or loaned nearly two million dollars to the group, which is footing the bill for a high-powered legal team that includes Ted Olson, former Solicitor General of the United States.  Welch has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and went to public schools for most of his education.

DAVID WELCH:  It’s because of these teachers that I’ve been able to have a successful career as an engineer and entrepreneur.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Welch also has three young kids and has supported other education and environmental causes over the years.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  What motivated you?

DAVID WELCH: I’m a– I’m a father, I’m an employer.  And when I look at the system, I realize the system actually inhibits one of the most important things that are for an education– for a child and that’s access, the uniform access, for every child to have a passionate and effective teacher.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Some of your critics have said, “You know what?  This isn’t a grassroots movement.  The kids were–recruited– and– maybe they’re just being used for the personal mission of a wealthy businessman.”  What do you say to that?

DAVID WELCH: When you sat there and you watch the children get on stand, there’s no one that put them up to that other than themselves.

RAYLENE IN COURT: It made me not want to try, or show up to school

MEGAN THOMPSON:  One law Welch is fighting is the statute that governs teacher layoffs.  California is one of ten states that requires seniority be considered to determine who stays, and who goes during budget cuts.  John Deasy is the superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, and he testified against the so-called “Last-In, First-Out” law.

JOHN DEASY:  I couldn’t think of a more destructive statute for students, staff, in a system.  We have had to lay off very effective teachers in the same school that we are documenting a teacher for dismissal.

Their contributions to the school, their relationships with students, how they’re supporting and helping parents, none of the factors other than the hiring date is used.  Now is seniority– an important contribution?  I would argue it is.  It shouldn’t be the only and sole factor however.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  The Vergara lawsuit also challenges laws governing teacher tenure.  California’s two-year probationary period for new teachers is one of the shortest in the nation.  After two years, most teachers get permanent employment status.  Superintendent Deasy says that permanent status means the LA school district can end up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire a single, underperforming teacher.  A process, he says, that can take a decade.

JOHN DEASY: The overwhelming majority of teachers are amazing people, phenomenal people.  So we’re talking’ about a small sub-set who should, and must, leave employment.

MEGAN THOMPSON: It came out during the trial that only about 3% of teachers who are– who were evaluated last year were below standard.  So we– should we overhaul the system to take care of what might just be a few bad apples?

JOHN DEASY: When you’ve identified chronic low performers you can’t exit them quick enough so the students are not being harmed.  That’s that we’re talking about.

JOSHUA PECHTHALT: Are there teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom?  Absolutely.  But to blow up the entire system– for– for evaluating and protecting teacher rights based on a couple of students’ perspective– I think really misses the boat.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Joshua Pechthalt is president of the California Federation of Teachers, one of the unions fighting the lawsuit.  He says the unions support efforts to streamline the dismissal process.

JOSHUA PECHTHALT: I think the dismissal process could be more effective and more efficient.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Pechthalt says that many ineffective teachers are weeded out during the two-year probation period.  And, he says, granting permanent status to the rest encourages them to stay on the job, despite often difficult classroom conditions.

JOSHUA PECHTHALT: The bigger problem we have in California and I think nationally is that we can’t keep teachers in the profession.  Classes are overcrowded.  There aren’t enough resources.  So that really is the bigger issue in public education.  And that’s creating conditions that make it attractive for people to make this– a lifelong profession.

 KELLY IWAMOTO:  It’s a remainder of 2, and a divisor of 3.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Fourth grade teacher Kelly Iwamoto of Inglewood, CA, says she knows first-hand how precarious her job can be.  Because she doesn’t have enough seniority, she’s been laid off three times in the last three years, then brought back.  Even so, she supports the seniority-based layoff system.  She says it’s objective and clear.

KELLY IWAMOTO: It’s fair.  It’s fair, and I support it.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Iwamoto also says she supports the other part of the law that’s being challenged – permanent status for teachers after two years.  She says that provision actually helps her advocate for students, without fear of being fired.

KELLY IWAMOTO: Because I speak out very frequently about– resources being– brought to our district for lowering class sizes.  And if I’m vocal– and someone doesn’t like what I’m saying, then I can be let go for that.  And I don’t think that’s fair.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  Iwamoto and the unions also say a teacher’s “effectiveness” is difficult to measure, and, they say, students don’t necessarily connect with every teacher.  During the trial, Elizabeth Vergara testified that she learned nothing in English class and wasn’t assigned an entire book to read all year.  But the teacher testified that Vergara’s reading scores actually went up.

TEACHER: We read and wrote every day.

ATTORNEY: Did your class read more than one chapter of a book for the entire school year?

TEACHER: Absolutely.

ATTORNEY:  And did you ever receive any negative marks on your evaluations or observations?

TEACHER: I did not.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The defense also argued that many superintendents – including Deasy himself — have successfully worked within the rules to get rid of ineffective teachers.

ATTORNEY: LAUSD increased the number of School Board initiated dismissals from 10 in the 2009-2010 school year, to 99 in the 2011-2012 school year?

JOHN DEASY: I believe that is accurate.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Some people on the other side of this issue have said that, “You know what?  This isn’t about the statutes, it’s about management.  And if the district, or a school, is well run, they can– they can get rid of ineffective teachers.”

JOHN DEASY:  That is not the point.  The point is students’ rights to be in front of a highly effective teacher– a teacher who is not harming them every single day of the year.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The Vergara sisters say that’s all they want for their old middle school.  As it turns out, those first two teachers they complained about are still teaching there.

ELIZABETH VERGARA: I think that’s horrible.  ‘Cause, I mean, there’s students that actually want to learn.

BEATRIZ VERGARA: I want to have good teachers that motivate me.  Not only me, but everyone.

MEGAN THOMPSON:  The judge will deliver a verdict in the case in the coming weeks … any decision he makes is expected to be appealed.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.