LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a packed courtroom, attorneys unveiled opposing views Monday on the emotionally divisive issue of whether California public school teachers should be protected from dismissal if they are found to be grossly ineffective in their jobs.
The opening volleys in what's expected be a monthlong trial came from lawyers for nine students seeking to abolish teacher tenure and seniority, and from attorneys for the governor, state education department and teacher unions who say such extreme measures are not needed.
"The evidence will show that the impact of an effective teacher is profound and undeniable," attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. said. "This is the gateway to their success in society."
He said he will present experts and studies showing that achievements in later life can be measured by interactions with good teachers.
One study showed that students taught by ineffective teachers had their lifetime income reduced by $2 million, Boutrous said.
The plaintiffs called as their first witness Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy, who testified about the difficulty of weeding out "grossly ineffective teachers" in the 18-month probationary period before they are granted tenure.
Deasy was asked whether because of the short time for evaluation, the nation's second-largest school district has been unable to avoid granting tenure to some grossly ineffective teachers.
"That is my opinion," he said.
Under questioning by plaintiff's attorney Marcellus McRae, Deasy said the district has been in the position of dismissing tenured teachers when they turned out to be grossly ineffective. He said it was a long and expensive process.
"An average successful termination is one to two years ," he said. "But some cases have taken slightly less than 10 years. "
Deasy said the cost to the school district for each dismissal ranges from $250,000 to $450,000. If misconduct is involved, it can cost even more, he said, because "you're preparing a court case."
Deasy said the dismissals have been so arduous that "on more than one occasion a principal has said they'd think twice before going through this process again."
The trial, being heard by Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu without a jury, is the latest battle in a nationwide trend.
Dozens of states have moved in recent years to abolish or toughen the standards around giving teachers permanent employment protection and seniority-based preferences during layoffs.
Unions say eliminating such laws would erase a vital support system for a profession that is already losing talented people to higher-paid positions in the private sector.
The first named plaintiff in the case, 17-year-old Beatriz Vergara, will testify about teachers falling asleep in class, sitting and reading newspapers or playing YouTube videos while ignoring students, the lawyer said.
The students oppose the tenure system they say keeps bad teachers in classrooms. Boutrous said the granting of tenure, which amounts to lifetime employment protection, after 18 months on the job is inadequate to guard against accepting unqualified teachers.
While there are 275,000 teachers in California, under the current rules the state dismisses just 10 teachers a year for being ineffective in their jobs, he said.
Lawyers for the state and unions countered that most teachers targeted by such claims usually resign before dismissal is necessary.
Central to the lawsuit is the claim that teachers who fail are shuttled to schools in minority and poor neighborhoods, giving those students an unequal education. Boutrous said that is a violation of the state constitution's guarantee of education.
Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias told Judge Treu that 18 months is more than enough time to identify teachers who are "the worst of the worst."
Elias and attorney James Finberg, representing the teachers union, said the guarantees of tenure, seniority and other benefits are necessary to keep teachers in the low-paying jobs.
"Our schools struggle to retain teachers," Elias said, noting the challenge is greatest in high-crime areas.
Elias noted that Gov. Jerry Brown has made education a centerpiece of his budget and plans to pour funds into schools in low-income and minority areas.
Boutrous said that elimination of the current tenure and seniority rules would leave it to the state legislature to come up with a new plan for evaluating the effectiveness of teachers and allowing dismissals of those who don't measure up.
Associated Press writer Julie Watson contributed to this report.