Workforce - The lawsuit that could end 'tenure' for bad teachers

10th January 2014 at 00:00
US judge rules that students can challenge employment rights

It has been dubbed the "bad teacher" lawsuit, is backed by a Silicon Valley multi-millionaire and could have far-reaching consequences for the working rights of millions of teachers across the US.

A Superior Court judge has ruled that a group of nine students can bring legal action against the state of California in a bid to significantly weaken regulations that protect teachers from being laid off.

The plaintiffs claim that state laws make it almost impossible for schools to fire "grossly ineffective" teachers. If the lawsuit is successful, the court could deem that access to quality teaching is a constitutional right, opening the door to future legal action elsewhere in the country.

The lawsuit aims to dismantle the five sections of the state's education code that grant teachers "tenure", effectively handing staff a job for life. It also aims to remove the so-called "last in, first out" statute that forces school districts to dismiss teachers on the basis of how long they have been in the job, rather than how effective they are.

The case is another example of the growing conflict in the US between education reformers and teaching unions, which is echoed in the UK by growing tensions between teachers' leaders and the government.

The parent and student group that has brought the case in California is being supported by an organisation called Students Matter, which is bankrolled by multi-millionaire technology entrepreneur David Welch, who has joined the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates by becoming an advocate for substantial school reform.

Heading up the legal team for the group is one of the country's leading lawyers, Theodore Olson, a former solicitor general who successfully represented former president George W Bush in the Supreme Court against Al Gore after the disputed 2000 presidential election.

The case has been moving through the courts for more than a year, but a Superior Court judge has now decided to allow it to go to trial, starting on 27 January.

Marcellus McRae, a partner at law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, which is representing the students, said the aim of the lawsuit was to "modernise" the public schools system and challenge existing laws that "entrench grossly ineffective teachers in our schools".

"We believe this case will affirm the fundamental constitutional right to a quality education for all our students," Mr McRae said in a statement issued to TES. "We want to empower teachers, including talented, hard-working educators, who want meaningful careers and opportunities for leadership.

"California's outdated laws prevent the recruitment, support and retention of the most effective teachers, and force administrators to leave grossly ineffective teachers in the classroom."

The decision to allow the case to go to trial has been vehemently opposed by the main teaching unions in the state, which have branded the move as "deeply misguided".

Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said the case would be a waste of taxpayers' money.

"This most recent shenanigan by corporate special interests and billionaires to push their education agenda on California public schools is resulting in a waste of taxpayer dollars and time - time that should be spent focusing on providing a quality education to all students as the economy improves," Mr Vogel said.

Josh Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, also voiced his opposition to the lawsuit, stating that it was "deceptive and dishonest" to claim that teachers' working rights were unfair to students.

"Students need a stable, experienced teaching workforce," he said. "They won't have one if this lawsuit succeeds in gutting basic teacher rights."

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