(Reuters) – A group of nine California students challenged employment rules in court on Monday that they complain force public schools in the most populous U.S. state to retain low-performing teachers, mainly in poor and minority schools.
At the start of a trial challenging state education employment policy, attorneys argued that California guidelines for permanent hiring, firing and layoff practices for K-12 public school teachers violate the constitutional rights of students by denying them effective teachers.
The lawsuit, opposed by teacher union leaders, comes at a time of bitter political wrangling over how best to reinvigorate a U.S. public school system that leaves American children lagging counterparts in countries like Finland and South Korea.
Among the rules targeted by the lawsuit is one that requires school administrators to either grant or deny tenure status to teachers after the first 18 months of their employment, which they complain causes administrators to hastily give permanent employment to potentially problematic teachers.
“School districts, like any other organization, need to be able to manage their workforce in a rational way with a primary focus on putting the highest quality teachers in front of students,” attorney Theodore Boutrous of the education advocacy group Students Matter said during opening statements. “But they can’t do it because of these statutes.”
The plaintiffs are also challenging three laws they say make it difficult to fire low-performing tenured teachers by requiring years of documentation, dozens of procedural steps and significant amounts of public funds before a dismissal.
Lastly, the plaintiffs want to abolish the so-called “last-in first-out” statute, which requires administrators to lay off teachers based on reverse seniority.
The group says the layoff policy disproportionately affects minority and low-income students, who are more likely to have entry-level teachers and poor quality senior teachers assigned to their district.
When layoffs hit, junior teachers typically go first, which Boutrous argued leaves a higher number of “grossly ineffective” teachers behind.
He cited a study of the Los Angeles Unified School District that said black students were over 40 percent more likely to be taught by an underachieving instructor than their white peers.
The plaintiffs, California public school students from elementary to high school-age, filed the lawsuit in May 2012 against Governor Jerry Brown, the California Department of Education, Superintendent Tom Torlakson and the California Board of Education.
Opponents of the lawsuit say it ignores the larger issue of education funding problems and district mismanagement. If successful, they say the case would create an unstable system that could fail to attract qualified teachers to a job that often offers low pay for hard work.