A new front in the years-long political and legal war over the future of California’s immense and immensely expensive public school system opened this week in a Los Angeles courtroom.
The war pits the education establishment, which argues that more money is the best way to improve academic outcomes, against civil rights advocates and reform groups backed by business interests and wealthy individuals, which contend that structural change is needed.
The establishment more or less prevailed this month in a skirmish over the rules governing Gov. Jerry Brown’s school finance overhaul, when the state Board of Education opted for “flexibility” in how local school officials spend new money meant to help poor and English-learner students.
Reformers contended that “flexibility” would allow local school officials to avoid concentrating the extra money on targeted students.
The trial before Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu pits one reform group, Students Matter, founded by Silicon Valley tycoon David Welch, against the state and school unions over whether tenure and other teacher protection laws violate students’ rights by denying them competent instruction.
“We are not saying we have all the answers,” Theodore Boutrous Jr., a Students Matter attorney, said as the trial opened Monday.
“We are not saying there are not other problems. We are not asking the court to create an evaluation system. We are not attempting to scapegoat teachers for racism and poverty.”
Rather, he continued, the laws “create a vicious cycle to harm students every day.”
The opening witness for plaintiffs was John Deasy, superintendent of the huge Los Angeles Unified School District, who told Treu that a short probationary period for new teachers in current law is not sufficient to judge their competence before they gain tenure.
Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias, echoing the unions, countered that the laws being challenged maintain a “professional, stable workforce” and “eliminating due process and job security could bring about unintended consequences when California is embarking on innovative efforts,” citing the aforementioned effort to improve the educations of poor children.
One law being challenged is the complex process for dismissing a poor or abusive teacher. After Deasy’s district paid off a teacher who had been accused of sexually abusing young children, rather than go through the dismissal process, the Legislature took up the issue.
Opposition from the California Teachers Association and other unions blocked a tough bill and the Legislature last year passed a union-supported measure that critics said would make the process even more laborious. Brown then rejected the bill as inadequate.
In reaction, reformers have proposed a dismissal ballot measure that, if placed before voters, would open still another front in California’s school war.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as firstname.lastname@example.org.