California Judge: Sending Bad Teachers To Poor Schools Is Troubling, Not Illegal

Justin Streight

The 2nd District Court of Appeal has reversed a landmark lower-court decision, claiming that although California likely has deprived poor students of a good education from competent teachers, it's not because of tenure. The judgement is a major victory for the state's teacher union, but students in bad areas are left to struggle with under-performing schools.

Two years ago, nine students and a non-profit group sued the state of California, claiming that teacher tenure laws denied students in low-income areas an adequate education, violating the state's constitutional guarantees. They showed that school administrators would often transfer their worst teachers to schools in poor areas, rather than go through the tedious and costly process of firing them. The trial judge initially ruled in the student's favor, but the Appeals court didn't agree.

According to the AP, the Appeals court did not deny that poor neighborhoods had become dumping grounds for California's incompetent teachers, essentially reaffirming the trial judge's "shock of conscience." In their decision, they explained that the tenure itself was not to blame.

"Some principals rid their schools of highly ineffective teachers by transferring them to other schools, often to low-income schools. This phenomenon is extremely troubling and should not be allowed to occur, but it does not inevitably flow from the challenged statutes."

The court said that the statues did not direct school districts in what to do with incompetent teachers, and therefore were not to blame for depriving the students.

Justice Roger Boren wrote in the 3-0 opinion, "The court's job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are 'a good idea.'"

In California, teachers can get tenure after just two years, similar to many other states. Once in place, the plaintiffs argued, schools would often have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to fire an under-performing teacher, creating the incentive to shovel them off to another school.

The plaintiffs attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. called the laws a "shackle."

"The Court of Appeal's decision mistakenly blames local school districts for the egregious constitutional violations students are suffering each and every day. The irrational, arbitrary, and abominable laws at issue in this case shackle school districts and impose severe and irreparable harm on students."

The teacher's union praised the decision, saying that tenure is still needed to provide educators with due process rights and academic freedom. According to the New York Times, Eric C. Heins, the president of the California Teachers Association, claimed the decision was a victory for both students and teachers.

"What these statutes have done is, one, they bring stability to the system, and for many students they bring stability to their schools and to the teachers in their schools. For many kids, the school environment is the only stable environment that many of them have."

The court decision might set the tone for other decisions, but the plaintiffs in two similar cases in Minnesota and New York vow to move forwards, thanks in part to the backing of the Partnership for Educational Justice, which receives financing from Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and the Walton family of Wal Mart according to the New York Times.

Associate Professor Katharine Strunk of the University of Southern California explained that the ruling is a victory for teachers union, the lawsuit has started a national conversation on education reform and controversial statues like tenure, "I don't think anyone believes that these laws are the best we can do."

[Photo by Chris Hondros/Newsmakers]