®eformers want to make it easier to sack bad teachers
From the print edition of The Economist (UK) | http://econ.st/1fv0tyl
Mar 15th 2014 | LOS ANGELES JOSH, a young social-studies teacher working in a tough part of Los Angeles, had been on the job for less than a year when word came that it might not last much longer. Its public finances in ruins, California was slashing budgets and laying off thousands of teachers. Josh’s headmaster fought to keep him, but his hands were tied; under the state’s strict “last in, first out” seniority rules, enshrined in statute, the most recent recruits had to be fired first, regardless of ability.
Luckily Josh found a job at a charter school (funded by the state but run independently). Three years later, he says he can understand why experienced teachers deserve protection; as a newbie, the help he received from veterans at his first school was invaluable. Yet others seemed to be serving time; it was hard to see them “chuckle on” in the cafeteria when he was being told to leave.
Thanks to its mighty teachers’ unions, California has largely withstood the gusts of change that have blown through the education systems of other states in recent years. Only nine others force school districts to make lay-offs according to seniority. But a lawsuit being heard in a dingy courtroom in downtown Los Angeles may change that. Students Matter, an advocacy group formed by David Welch, a rich entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, is fighting to overturn five laws governing the hiring and firing of teachers. If Mr Welch is even partly successful the changes could be far-reaching, and not only in California.
The lawsuit, brought on behalf of nine schoolchildren, focuses on three areas: teacher tenure, dismissal procedures and the seniority rules. In California, administrators must in effect decide whether to grant teachers tenure (permanent employment) after just 18 months; too soon, say critics. Firing bad ones is nightmarishly hard, partly because teachers may appeal to a three-person panel on which two other teachers sit; one teacher accused of sexually abusing 23 students was paid $40,000 to leave because he could not be sacked immediately. Bad teachers often simply perform the “dance of the lemons”, being moved from district to district. And schools with large numbers of poor or ethnic-minority students, like Josh’s, suffer most from seniority rules because they tend to have higher numbers of new teachers; in bad times, some have had to lay off two-thirds of their teaching staff.
The Students Matter case contends that the disproportionate effect of California’s laws on poor or non-white children violates the constitutional right of equal access to education. This will be hard to prove, but Mr Welch felt obliged to go down the legal track after watching union-backed Democrats repeatedly resist attempts to tweak the laws in the legislature.
Last year two of those unions joined the lawsuit to defend the statutes. Teachers deal with controversial issues in the classroom, says Joshua Pechthalt, president of one of them, the California Federation of Teachers, and therefore need special protections to guard against capricious administrators. What if creationists on a school board try to fire teachers who refuse to stop going on about evolution? But John Deasy, head of the vast Los Angeles Unified School District (and a witness for Students Matter), says parents find California’s laws “incomprehensible”.
However the judge rules, the case is likely to end up in the state Supreme Court. Mr Deasy, who pleads that he is “not prone to dramatics”, compares the case to Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision of 1954 that desegregated America’s public schools. And if the plaintiffs are successful, predicts Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teaching Quality, an education-reform group, lawsuits or legislative changes in other states should follow. Mr Welch says reformers from outside California have been in touch.