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Teacher tenure, seniority based layoffs provisions struck down in California

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California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled this past Tuesday in favor of Beatriz Vergara and eight other student plaintiffs finding that the California laws related to “permanent employment”, “dismissal” and last-in-first-out layoffs “violate their fundamental rights to equality of education by adversely affecting the quality of education they are afforded by the state” (click here to read his tentative ruling).

LA Superintendent John Deasy testified that firing incompetent teachers usually takes two or more years, and sometimes as long as ten. The process costs the district between $250,000 and $450,000. Students Matter, a nonprofit formed to support and fund Vergara v. California, advanced that a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers work in lower-income, primarily minority schools, therefore widening the already-present achievement gap.

Of California’s 275,000 teachers, on average only 2.2, or .0008%, were dismissed for unsatisfactory performance in past years. Judge Treu called the onerous dismissal procedures “uber due process” and felt that a more appropriate balance could be struck for students if California’s teachers were given the same due process rights as paraprofessionals, teachers aides and other public employees.

Harvard Economics Professor Raj Chetty concluded that replacing the worst-performing 5% of teachers raises college admissions, lowers pregnancy rates, and raises average lifetime income by $50,000. Chetty studied two million students over two decades, looking at teacher “value-added scores,” which identify the degree to which a teacher contributes to growth in student performance beyond what is expected.

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Entrenched tenure protections (which grant “permanent employment status” after 18 months as compared to 3 years in Pennsylvania) and seniority based layoff procedures, known as “last in, first out,” or LIFO, obstruct equitable access to effective teachers according to Judge Treu. 2012 California “Teacher of the Year” Michelle Apperson was laid off due to budget constraints, as other senior teachers had more time on the job. Pennsylvania legislators also recognized the drawbacks of LIFO, and recently passed HB 1722 out of the Education Committee which ensures that teacher performance guides furlough decisions, rather than seniority. The bill also extends the time needed to acquire tenure to five years rather than three. As we saw in Pittsburgh two years ago, quality-blind furloughs not only mean the loss of distinguished teachers, but also create greater churn at our most vulnerable schools (which saw turnover rates of 50% or greater in 2012).

The lawsuit will affect approximately one in eight American public-school children, due to the large number in California’s schools. The National Council on Teacher Quality stated, “this landmark case should put states across the country on notice: policies that are not in the best interest of students cannot stand.”