A school reform landmark in California

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

President Obama has called education the civil-rights issue of our time. On Tuesday a California court appeared to concur in a ground-breaking ruling that strikes down the state's teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws on grounds that they violate the equal protection clause of the state Constitution.

Vergara v. State of California was brought in May 2012 by nine public school students who contended that iron-clad teacher job protections and "last-in-first-out" policies undermine the quality of education. Supporting their argument was testimony that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu wrote "shocks the conscience." To wit: In the past 10 years, only 91 teachers in California have been fired, and only 19 for unsatisfactory performance. Yet according to one state witness, between 2,750 to 8,250 California teachers rank as grossly ineffective.

Incompetent teachers are protected by tenure, which vests after two years. However, as the judge noted in his ruling, schools must determine whether to grant tenure well before March 15 of a teacher's second year at which time many aren't even credentialed. The upshot is that the vast majority of probationary teachers—including 98% in Los Angeles Unified School District—receive tenure.

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