LOS ANGELES - When it comes to education reform, California has become the land of litigation.
That's because state lawmakers and local school board members are often financed and controlled by powerful teachers unions, which selfishly oppose logical reform efforts.
If union bosses don't want reform, their pet lawmakers will block it.
That forces reformers to go to court to press for changes they believe are necessary to improve academics for California school children.
A new organization called "Students Matter" recently filed a comprehensive lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeking to overturn a handful of traditional union-supported laws and policies that protect bad teachers and stifle quality instruction.
The lawsuit seeks to overthrow one law that allows new teachers to gain tenure protection after only two years on the job. In many states the process takes 3-5 years. The plaintiffs claim that it's impossible to determine how effective a teacher will be after only two years of employment.
It also seeks to "invalidate" the common policy of "last in, first out" when it comes to teacher layoffs. The plaintiffs believe school districts should have the right to keep the best teachers, based on classroom effectiveness, rather than those who have been on the payroll the longest.
Finally, the lawsuit seeks to streamline the process for firing tenured teachers, which in many cases can take years and cost schools hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses. Sometimes the prohibitive costs of firing teachers has prompted school administrators to pay them to leave, often with letters of recommendation they use to obtain jobs in other districts.
In many states, issues like these have been tackled by lawmakers in the state capitol. But far too many California lawmakers accept big donations from the teachers unions, and earn those dollars by killing any type of reforms.
"Our 80-member state assembly is in the pocket of (the California Teachers Association)," said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, told EAGnews.org.
"The 40-member Senate is more reasonable, but the bottom line is that it is virtually impossible to get any meaningful reform passed in the California legislature. We do have an initiative process but it is laborious and if it has anything to do with ed reform, CTA will spend as much money as it takes to ensure that the initiative goes down.
"So what's left? The courts."
"Arbitrary and unjustifiable inequality"
The plaintiff organization, Students Matter, was reportedly founded by California entrepreneur David Welch. Its advisory committee is comprised of representatives from high-profile education reform groups active throughout the nation.
They include Students First (headed by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee), Democrats for Education Reform, and the Parent Revolution, which established and promotes California's groundbreaking Parent Trigger law.
According to the Students Matter lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that once teachers attain tenure, they "gain due process rights that make it expensive and difficult to fire them, even if they're grossly ineffective." They also claim that "the protection of ineffective teachers creates arbitrary and unjustifiable inequality among students, especially low-income children in lower-performing schools."
Ironically, the superintendent of one of the districts that would be affected by the lawsuit is supportive.
John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the legal action "is aggressively going after long-term issues which have thwarted the rights of students to a high-quality education."
"To my dismay, we have lost thousands of our best and hardest-working classroom instructors through the last hired, first fired rule," Deasy was quoted as saying. "We are compelled through state law and union rules to base these difficult decisions primarily on seniority."
Deasy has attempted to impose necessary reforms on his own, like applying more scrutiny when granting tenure and more perseverance in firing bad teachers, according to the Huffington Post.
He has also been developing and testing a new teacher evaluation system that incorporates student test scores, but the teachers union has challenged that effort before a state labor board, according to the news report.
Using the courts to fight for students
Predictably, organized labor reacted negatively to the lawsuit targeting early tenure, last-in, first out and the long termination process.
And at least one school board member, Steve Zimmer of the Los Angeles district, was quoted as saying, "What matters to the folks who fund this is not students, it's eliminating public sector unions."
The plaintiffs disagree. They believe the unions have an obvious habit of protecting incompetent teachers, with no regard for the effect on students, which they believe is a violation of the students' rights under the California state constitution.
According to the Los Angeles Times, "By all but prohibiting the firing of ineffective teachers, the lawsuit claims, the state has reneged on its constitutional responsibility. In addition, it points out, tenure laws have a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged students because school districts often relegate problem teachers to schools in poor areas and because seniority rules often require those schools to fire their most effective teachers during layoffs."
Education reformers are already pursuing several other lawsuits in California, in an effort to make sure student needs take precedent over union demands.
One lawsuit would allow the Los Angeles district to bypass some higher-priority "turnaround" campuses when teacher layoffs are necessary. Those campuses are typically staffed with hand-picked teachers who are charged with improving student performance.
The school district won the first round of that legal battle, but the union is appealing, according to news reports.
A pending lawsuit calls for the enforcement of a long-forgotten state law mandating the use of teachers evaluations based on student performance.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit in San Bernadino County is seeking legal enforcement of the Parent Trigger law, which says that a majority of parents from a failing school can sign petitions to radically alter the operations of the school.
A majority of parents at Desert Trails Elementary in the Adalanto school district signed petitions to convert the building into a charter school, but the school board recently rejected many of the petition signatures. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit want the court to overrule the school board and allow the parents' plan to go forward.