Attorneys argue value of the teacher tenure laws

 Judge indicates it will be several weeks before he issues a decision 

By John Rogers
Associated Press

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 Rolf M. 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.


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