Lawsuit in California takes an unusual approach

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Students Matter, a non-profit created by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, recently filed a high-stakes lawsuit challenging California's teacher protection laws.  The lawsuit asserts that five outdated statutes create "arbitrary and unjustifiable inequality among students," particularly in low-performing schools where - the lawsuit asserts - ineffective teachers often wind up. 

While similar lawsuits have tackled many of the same issues, most recently Reed v. the State of California, which won a landmark victory in 2011 over "Last In, First Out's" (LIFO's) negative impact on students' fundamental right to an education, the approach here is different. 

Unlike previous efforts, the Student Matters case is quite broad and may fail to allege with sufficient specificity that these laws have caused a constitutional harm to an entire class of students.  The lawsuit argues that tenure, dismissal, and LIFO statutes are a violation of the equal protection provisions of the state's constitution, which guarantees the right of all California students to an education.  At least one student plaintiff claims that she transferred to a charter school because of her concern that she would otherwise be assigned to an ineffective teacher, thus preventing her from receiving a "meaningful education."  However, there is no evidence that actual harm would have been done to her education had she stayed in public school.  Additionally, a lawsuit that is not sufficiently grounded in facts risks establishing damaging precedent that jeopardizes some of the established case law.  That case law has served in previous efforts as the foundation for protecting California's students.

While there are many outspoken critics of the tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws (NCTQ included), this suit, regrettably, offers few specifics in support of the claim. Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy, a vocal critic of many of these laws, has still been able to make inroads in removing ineffective teachers from the classroom.

Reform is sorely needed in California, but whether Students Matter's approach will bring us one step closer remains to be seen.  

(Thanks to Marc Tafolla from GO Public Schools in Oakland for his input.)

Susan Douglas