LOS ANGELES (AP) — Attorneys for a group seeking to eliminate tenure protection for California teachers argued Thursday that such iron-clad job security makes it almost impossible to fire an incompetent instructor.
Attorneys for the teachers and the state responded that the real problem lies not with bad teachers but with unqualified school administrators.
The conflicting opinions were expressed during nearly five hours of closing arguments in the trial of a lawsuit asking that the courts strike down as unconstitutional several laws providing teachers with tenure, seniority-based job protection and other benefits.
At the end of the day, Superior Court Judge Treu, who is hearing the case without a jury, indicated it could be several weeks before he issues a ruling.
"The court has not made up its mind as to how it will rule," Treu said, adding he was giving both sides until April 10 to submit further arguments in writing. After that, he said, the law requires that he rule within 90 days.
The trial represents the latest battle in a nationwide movement to abolish or toughen the standards for granting teachers permanent employment protection and seniority-based preferences during layoffs. Dozens of states have moved in recent years to get rid of or raise the standards for obtaining such protections.
Those who would have Treu declare state laws regulating tenure and seniority-based job protection unconstitutional say they are shackling school districts across California with bad teachers they can't get rid of, which in turn denies students their constitutional right to a good education.
Those who support tenure and seniority respond that the laws preserve academic freedom and attract talented people to a profession that does not pay well. They say it's up to administrators to properly vet teachers and to local officials to provide their schools with the resources they need.
"Striking the statute would do nothing to improve things in poorly managed districts," said attorney James Finberg, who represents the teachers. "Indeed, giving poorly run districts more authority would make things worse."
Without tenure, teachers could be fired upon the whim of principals who didn't like them or parents they had angered by teaching their children about controversial subjects such as Islam or evolution, he said.
Finberg also said that several school officials testified during the trial that the two years it takes a California teacher to earn tenure is plenty of time for administrators to determine if that person has any talent.
Plaintiffs' attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. argued that it isn't nearly enough time, suggesting three to five years makes more sense.
Once a bad teacher slips through, he said, it becomes almost impossible to fire the teacher.
"When a student has a grossly ineffective teacher, it harms them. It harms them for the rest of their lives," Boutrous said.
Another plaintiffs' attorney, Marcellus McRae, noted that Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy testified during the trial that it can take over two years on average to fire an incompetent teacher and sometimes as long as 10. The cost of doing so, he said, can run anywhere from $250,000 to $450,000.
The lawsuit, Vergara v. California, was brought by Beatriz Vergara and eight other students who said they were saddled with teachers who let classrooms get out of control, came to school unprepared and in some cases told them they'd never make anything of themselves. They were helped in filing the action by Students Matter, a group founded by wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch.
Attorney Susan Carson of the state Attorney General's office argued that although nine students were named as plaintiffs only five testified and none could prove their instructors, one of whom was honored as teacher of the year by her school district, were unqualified.
"Not a single administrator, not a single teacher, not a single parent corroborated their accounts," she said.
While McRae said he believes the overwhelming number of California teachers are competent, he said the few bad ones almost always end up at poor, minority school districts, thus depriving their students of their right to a quality education.
"Have we not had enough in this country's history of short-shafting minority and poor people?" he asked in a sometimes impassioned closing argument. "This is unconscionable. This has to stop."
More than 150 people, including numerous students, parents, teachers and administrators, were in court to hear Thursday's closing arguments, although more than half had left as they dragged on throughout the day.
Among those present were many of the students who brought the lawsuit, Deasy and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.
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