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Get this — a judge puts kids above unions

Get this -- a judge puts kids above unions

SACRAMENTO — Education reformers and their teachers’ union foes seemed equally stunned on Tuesday by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling that found California’s teacher-tenure system, which makes it nearly impossible for public schools to fire teachers, to be an affront to the equal-protection clause of the state Constitution.

This is the first step in a long legal process that pits a group of poor kids and reformers against the state and the powerful California Teachers’ Association and its Capitol allies, but this was big national news — and the latest volley in an ongoing debate about educational reform.

The judge agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that tenure and other statutes “result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students.”

It’s such a tortuous and costly process for school districts to eliminate bad teachers, ruled the judge, that few even bother trying. The case came down to priorities: Should teacher job protections continue to trump the educational rights of students, especially poor ones?

This case included plaintiffs from the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times published an investigation into the district’s firing process and concluded that it rarely ousts incompetents — and struggles even to boot teachers accused of horrific misconduct. In one notorious case, LAUSD paid a teacher $40,000 to get him to drop his appeal of his firing after he was accused of feeding children his own semen.

That 2012 case sparked angry calls for reform to the teacher-dismissal system, but the CTA quashed the effort. The follow-up bill that passed the Legislature would actually have made it harder to get rid of abusive teachers, prompting a veto. Finally, the Senate this past Monday OK’d reform, but it’s watered-down and applies only to teachers accused of egregious misconduct.

Given that raw display of CTA power, it’s clear that nothing will change without a court directive. And seeing how difficult it is to get rid of teachers that are accused of crimes, it’s easy to understand the plaintiff’s point: thousands of “merely” incompetent teachers are left in the classroom.

The judge also targeted the “last in, first out” law that bases layoffs on seniority. “No matter how gifted the junior teacher, and no matter how grossly ineffective the senior teacher, the junior gifted one … is separated from them,” explained the judge.

A defense witness testified that only 1 percent to 3 percent of teachers are “grossly ineffective,” but Treu noted that “the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250” given the state’s 275,000 active teachers. That’s a lot of teachers inflicting harm on thousands of students. And never mind the mediocre ones.

“We the people should call upon the governor and attorney general, who defended this case against the minority children, to stop the appeals,” said Gloria Romero, a former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles. “The reason we could achieve victory was this was done in the independent branch of government where CTA money doesn’t play.” She wants Jerry Brown to call for a special legislative session and to “examine your Jesuit conscience and do the right thing for poor children ….”

In response, CTA blasted Romero and others as part of “yet another attempt by the usual corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession.” It boasted that the state would appeal, even though the attorney general’s office said it still is considering the matter.

“We didn’t think, honestly, that we would have a chance of winning,” said an exuberant Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, which supported the plaintiffs. “We just wanted to go to trial and force them to defend the indefensible under oath.”

If the ruling is upheld, the Legislature will need to defy the CTA and revisit teacher-dismissal laws. But Austin is right that the real change needs to come from the grassroots, with the public demanding that the state start putting the education of kids above the job protections demanded by the unions representing those kids’ teachers.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at steven.greenhut@utsandiego.com.

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