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Teacher tenure set back by court

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that tenure, seniority and other job protections for teachers have created unequal conditions in public schools and deprive poor children of the best teachers.

In a case that could have national implications for the future of teacher tenure, Judge Rolf Treu sided with a Silicon Valley mogul against some of the most powerful labor unions in the country.

In the ruling, Treu struck down three state laws as unconstitutional. The laws grant tenure to teachers after two years, require layoffs by seniority, and call for a complex and lengthy process before a teacher can be fired.

David Welch, founder of an optical telecommunications manufacturing firm, charged that job protections allow the state’s worst educators to continue teaching and that those ineffective teachers are concentrated in high-poverty, minority schools, amounting to a civil rights violation.

Welch’s case was argued by a team of prominent attorneys, including former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, who most recently paired to win a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down California’s prohibition against same-sex marriage.

The defendants in the case, which include Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials, have been joined by the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

The ruling was a setback for the labor unions, which represent about 400,000 educators in California and whose core mission is to protect teachers’ jobs.

They are likely to appeal the lower court decision, and a final resolution could take years.

In many ways, the case was a proxy fight for some of the national conflicts over the teaching profession.

Backing Welch are some of the most incendiary players in the fight over the future of public schools, including Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor who ended tenure there in 2009 and went on to form an advocacy group aimed at eliminating it across the country.

Parent Revolution, the group behind the controversial “parent trigger” laws, is another supporter.

For the unions, the ruling poses a serious threat to a tenure system first adopted by New Jersey in 1909 to protect teachers from firings based on race, pregnancy, politics or other arbitrary factors such as clothing or appearance. It has remained one of the most attractive benefits of the profession.

The lawsuit did not address the thorny issues of how to fairly evaluate educators and how to identify a “bad teacher.” Policymakers have been struggling with that challenge for years and still haven’t figured it out.

But recent research on the importance of teacher quality has led Welch, Rhee and others to argue that tenure is an obstacle to removing bad teachers from the classroom. In states such as California, there are so many legal and procedural hurdles before a tenured teacher can be fired, they say, that it’s difficult to shed even the worst teachers.

Under California law, school districts have about 18 months after a teacher is hired to award tenure. That is not enough time to make a valid decision, the Students Matter complaint argued.

The complaint also attacked seniority rules and “last in, first out” policies, which say the newest teachers are the first to be laid off when jobs are cut, regardless of performance.

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