By Sharon Bernstein
(Reuters) - Closing arguments were set to begin Thursday in a closely watched California legal case that could change the way public school teachers are hired and fired in the most populous U.S. state.
The two-month trial focused on the question of whether five laws meant to protect teachers' jobs are unfair to poor and minority children because, for a variety of reasons, they lead to instability at schools in troubled neighborhoods and protect the jobs of older teachers even if they are ineffective.
"We're asking the court to declare that these five education codes are unconstitutional and that they violate the equal protection clause," said Marcellus A. McRae, one of several attorneys arguing the case before a judge in Superior Court in Los Angeles.
"They place students into two groups - those getting effective teachers and those who are not getting effective teachers," he said.
Minority students are disproportionately affected because many live in poorer neighborhoods where teacher turnover and other problems are more prevalent, the group says.
The lawsuit, opposed by teacher union leaders and the state, comes at a time of bitter political wrangling over how best to reinvigorate a U.S. public school system that leaves American children lagging counterparts in countries such as Finland and South Korea.
The group behind the lawsuit, Students Matter, was founded by Silicon Valley businessman David Welch and boasts the firepower of the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which mounted a team of many of the same attorneys to successfully overturn California's anti-gay marriage initiative, Proposition 8.
The issue they raise touches on one that has been raging in school reform circles for years - whether it is too difficult to fire teachers who are not effective in the classroom.
But the group's approach also brings in the novel argument that the five laws that they challenge actually violate the civil rights of students.
HARMING DISADVANTAGED STUDENTS
According to McRae, taken together, the laws harm poor and disadvantaged students on several levels. First, they say, a law regulating how layoffs of teachers must be performed requires districts to fire those with the least seniority first.
This can lead to higher turnover at schools in poorer areas, because those are the schools where the younger teachers are often assigned first, he said.
The problem is exacerbated, McRae said, by another law, which grants teachers tenure - near lifetime employment - if they are viewed as successful after two years on the job.
Practically speaking, that law means it is so hard to fire tenured teachers that the ineffective ones wind up getting transferred to schools in undesirable locations, McRae said.
That in turn means that when the young teachers get laid off, students at those schools can be left with more senior teachers who are there because they were not successful in other placements, he added.
Lawyers for the state and for teachers unions are expected to argue on Thursday that there was no proof that regulations harm students.
Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias said in an earlier part of the trial that "the occasional and random assignment of a student to a bad teacher" does not meet the test for an equal protection case.
James Finberg, representing the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, said in earlier arguments that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the laws in question had caused any harm.
"The statutes don't assign teachers. Districts and principals assign teachers," he said. "The reality of students being in inner-city schools is not caused by these statutes."
The state and teachers union further argued that the laws give school administrators adequate discretion to make employment decisions that as a whole have succeeded in attracting and retaining quality instructors.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Ken Wills)