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California students take a stand to topple teacher tenure; New York up next

A 2012 legal case brought by nine public school students in California, who argued the state's teacher tenure laws denied their right to a quality education, ended a few months ago after a judge declared the laws unconstitutional. Shortly after the ruling, legal action regarding teacher tenure laws began in another state, with parents in New York filing a similar lawsuit. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.

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  • 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 senior, and Beatriz, a junior, 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 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.’

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

     What went through your mind when you heard that?

  • BEATRIZ VERGARA:

     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.

  • 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 – challenged 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.

  • 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 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 former superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District. While superintendent, 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 challenged 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.

    Former 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 subset who should, and must, leave employment.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

     It came out during the trial that only about 3 percent of teachers who are– who were evaluated last year were below standard.  So 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 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 that fought 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, Calif., 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:

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

  • TEACHER:

     I did not.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    After months of argument deliberations, last June, the judge ruled in favor of the Vergara plaintiffs, declaring the tenure laws unconstitutional. The judge wrote in his decision, “Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students.”

    His ruling is currently on hold as it’s being appealed by the unions and California Governor Jerry Brown.

    But it spurred legal action in another state. Within weeks, parents in New York filed two lawsuits, now consolidated in to one, opposing that state’s teacher tenure laws.

    Former NBC and CNN anchor Campbell Brown is backing the lawsuit through a nonprofit she launched earlier this year and is speaking out extensively in support of it.

  • CAMPBELL BROWN:

    But we know that the single most important school-based factor in determining a child’s success is the effectiveness of the teacher, so why wouldn’t we do everything possible to get the most effective teacher possible in every classroom?

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

     The New York plaintiffs are also aided by a famous attorney, David Boies, who’s leading Brown’s nonprofit. Boies was Al Gore’s attorney after the 2000 election, and he successfully argued against California’s gay marriage ban in front of the Supreme Court.

    But just like in California, the unions are fighting the lawsuit. New York State United Teachers filed a motion to dismiss the suit; it’s president saying, “Tenure is an important safeguard that ensures children receive a quality education. It enables teachers to speak out in the best interest of their students and it protects academic freedom.  

    Arguments in the New York lawsuit are expected in January.  

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