by Frank Wells
© 2014 Ted Rall, all rights reserved. www.Rall.com
Teachers’ professional and due process rights have been on trial in Los Angeles Superior Court for the past two months. Closing arguments were heard March 27 in Vergara v. California, a lawsuit challenging as unconstitutional laws governing experience-based educator layoffs, the two-year probationary period, and the due process procedures in the teacher dismissal process. The suit, funded by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch and other corporate school “reformers,” is part of a broader and ongoing “blame teachers first” approach to education reform.
A strong defense team, with one set of attorneys representing the state of California and another representing CTA and the California Federation of Teachers, put on witnesses who effectively shattered the plaintiffs’ claims. The testimony of the plaintiffs’ own witnesses undercut the charge that the statutes were harming students. For example, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy — who strongly supports the lawsuit — was forced to concede that the challenged statutes have nothing to do with teacher assignment, and that time and cost are never considerations when he recommends a teacher be dismissed. He also admitted that under his watch he had reduced what had been a nearly automatic granting of permanent status to an approximately 50 percent rate, and had increased the teacher dismissal rate in LAUSD tenfold, all using the challenged statutes.
Further chipping away at the plaintiffs’ case were experts and school administrators who were highly critical of replacing experience as a layoff criterion with “effectiveness” determined by “value-added” test scores. World-renowned education experts like David Berliner and Linda Darling-Hammond testified to the extreme unreliability of such measures, which too often rank teachers near the bottom one year and near the top another. School superintendents testified that moving to such a system would destroy teamwork, place teachers in competition against one another, and make the layoff system incredibly cumbersome and contentious. They also pointed out that most subject areas and some grade levels don’t even have standardized test scores, and that placing such a high-stakes emphasis on test scores would make challenging schools even harder to staff than they are now.
Other witnesses testified to the reasonableness and workability of a two-year probation, saying that most principals know within one year if a teacher is ineffective, and others argued for the protections against bias and for academic freedom inherent in the dismissal laws. The evidence further showed that the overwhelming majority of teachers faced with dismissal either resign or retire when faced with that likelihood.
Underscoring the fact these laws work well in well-run school districts, teacher witnesses like San Juan Teachers Association President Shannan Brown and Hart District Teachers Association member James Webb showed how Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs help improve instruction and help remove teachers who aren’t successful in improving as needed. Former Oakland Education Association President Betty Olson-Jones countered two Oakland administrators, pointing out that ineffective management, a high turnover rate for teachers and administrators, and poor working conditions were the real problems in Oakland, not the challenged laws. “Clearly, striking down these statutes is not going to make Oakland a well-run school district,” said Jim Finberg, attorney for CTA and CFT, during closing arguments. “But it would deprive well-run districts of the benefits the statutes provide for the recruitment, retention and morale of teachers.”
And then there were the teachers who had been named by plaintiff students as “ineffective.” The evidence showed just the opposite — overwhelmingly so in the case of 2013 Pasadena Teacher of the Year Christine McLaughlin, an English teacher who student Raylene Monterroza claimed rarely gave students work or reading assignments. McLaughlin, who has also received other awards, produced a course syllabus and class assignments that showed how ludicrous such claims were. Other teachers named by the nine students, each having exemplary evaluations and strong praise from administrators, were equally damaging to the plaintiffs’ case.
At a courthouse news conference before closing arguments began, CTA President Dean E. Vogel said, “I want to say we’re hopeful. If the judge follows the law, we will prevail. But the judge has sent some mixed signals, and we’ll have to wait and see.”
“The threat of corporate special interests and billionaires who want to push their agenda on our students is very real and will continue,” Vogel added. “We’re going to see this struggle to the end — until our students are no longer used by corporate reformers to convert their millions into billions.”
Written briefs in the case were submitted April 10, and Judge Rolf Treu has 90 days to issue a ruling.
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