Response to court striking down California teacher tenure laws

The California Constitution makes basic equality a fundamental right. KUSI asked a dean of education and a legal scholar for their opinions about a ruling that could affect the hundred of thousands of California teachers and their students. Everyone agrees that the students come first.

“We consider education to be a fundamental right,” said Professor Susan Bisom-Rapp of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

But very few believe the ruling by a superior court judge in Los Angeles will lead to any immediate change in the way California public school teachers are hired, laid off, or dismissed.

“This is more than just about California; this is actually a national campaign. It’s not as if all of these laws are being tossed out.”

The 16-page ruling calls the laws that govern job security unconstitutional. At issue, the laws that govern tenure in California state that teachers can earn permanent employment after 18 months. The judge said that’s not enough time to make that decision. When it comes to firing teachers, the judge said the process takes too long and is too costly. He also ruled that layoffs – based only on seniority – have a disproportionate impact in schools that serve poor and minority students. The court’s conclusion: the statutes “disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students.”

“I think it will embolden folks who would like to launch similar campaigns against teachers unions in other states.”

But instead of being used to vilify union teachers, Professor Bisom-Rapp says the ruling could serve as a prod to constructive change.

“There are aspects of those five laws that don’t work well. And there certainly is a balance that could be achieved if the legislature – in a very thoughtful manner – gets involved to fix the laws in a way that they appear constitutional.”

“Have we gone a little bit too far in providing protection for teachers? Is there a middle ground here?” Queried Dr. Joe Johnson, Dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University.  

Dr. Johnson says he would support some changes, for example, in the way that teachers are fired.

“Where there is more of a clear route to dismissal – that is fair and reasonable, but also timely.”

But the dean says improving education requires a look at a lot of factors, not just the role of teachers.

“A plea eliminated tenure laws is not going to be a panacea. There is room to look at our existing policies and to really challenge if they meet the reasonableness test.”

There is no immediate change to any policies as this case heads towards more legal appeals, and that could take years. An interesting side-note: the same attorney who represented the nine student plaintiffs and the advocacy group funding the lawsuit also argued successfully to strike-down California’s Prop 8.

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