(Reuters) — Closing arguments were set to
begin Thursday in a closely watched California legal case that could
change the way public school teachers are hired and fired in the most
populous U.S. state.
The two-month trial focused on the question of whether five laws
meant to protect teachers' jobs are unfair to poor and minority
children because, for a variety of reasons, they lead to instability
at schools in troubled neighborhoods and protect the jobs of older
teachers even if they are ineffective.
"We're asking the court to declare that these five education codes
are unconstitutional and that they violate the equal protection
clause," said Marcellus A. McRae, one of several attorneys arguing
the case before a judge in Superior Court in Los Angeles.
"They place students into two groups — those getting effective
teachers and those who are not getting effective teachers," he said.
Minority students are disproportionately affected because many live
in poorer neighborhoods where teacher turnover and other problems
are more prevalent, the group says.
The lawsuit, opposed by teacher union leaders and the state, comes
at a time of bitter political wrangling over how best to
reinvigorate a U.S. public school system that leaves American
children lagging counterparts in countries such as Finland and South
The group behind the lawsuit, Students Matter, was founded by
Silicon Valley businessman David Welch and boasts the firepower of
the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which mounted a
team of many of the same attorneys to successfully overturn
California's anti-gay marriage initiative, Proposition 8.
The issue they raise touches on one that has been raging in school
reform circles for years — whether it is too difficult to fire
teachers who are not effective in the classroom.
But the group's approach also brings in the novel argument that the
five laws that they challenge actually violate the civil rights of
HARMING DISADVANTAGED STUDENTS
According to McRae, taken together, the laws harm poor and
disadvantaged students on several levels. First, they say, a law
regulating how layoffs of teachers must be performed requires
districts to fire those with the least seniority first.
This can lead to higher turnover at schools in poorer areas, because
those are the schools where the younger teachers are often assigned
first, he said.
The problem is exacerbated, McRae said, by another law, which grants
teachers tenure — near lifetime employment — if they are viewed as
successful after two years on the job.
Practically speaking, that law means it is so hard to fire tenured
teachers that the ineffective ones wind up getting transferred to
schools in undesirable locations, McRae said.
That in turn means
that when the young teachers get laid off, students at those schools
can be left with more senior teachers who are there because they
were not successful in other placements, he added.
Lawyers for the state and for teachers unions are expected to argue
on Thursday that there was no proof that regulations harm students.
Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias said in an earlier part of the
trial that "the occasional and random assignment of a student to a
bad teacher" does not meet the test for an equal protection case.
James Finberg, representing the California Teachers Association and
California Federation of Teachers, said in earlier arguments that
the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the laws in question had
caused any harm.
"The statutes don't assign teachers. Districts and principals assign
teachers," he said. "The reality of students being in inner-city
schools is not caused by these statutes."
The state and teachers union further argued that the laws give
school administrators adequate discretion to make employment
decisions that as a whole have succeeded in attracting and retaining
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; editing by Ken Wills)