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California ruling striking down teacher job protections inspires lawsuits fighting tenure

A month after a California judge ruled that job protections for teachers violated children's constitutional rights, one lawsuit making the same claim has been filed in New York, another has been announced and critics of teacher tenure in other states say they are preparing litigation as well.

The June ruling in California has been stayed pending appeal and may never take effect, but critics of teachers' unions are seizing on the idea of using the courts to weaken union power and thus try to improve schools.

Mona Davids, president of the parents group that filed the New York lawsuit targeting teacher tenure last week, called educational inequity "a crisis of epic proportions." She said New York City neighborhoods that are mostly black and Latino have the schools with the highest concentration of teachers rated unsatisfactory.

"Yet," Davids said, "every attempt to hold teachers accountable for educating our children is blocked."

The California ruling struck down state laws dictating how long it takes for a teacher to earn tenure as well as rules that protect senior teachers during layoffs. The plaintiffs argued that such union-backed job protections mean that poor and minority schools are staffed disproportionately by bad teachers, which violates students' rights.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said such lawsuits "mean a continuation of the artificial division that in order for students to win, teachers must lose."

But in the next few weeks, another group, the Partnership for Educational Justice, founded by former CNN newswoman Campbell Brown, says it will file an anti-tenure lawsuit in New York.

And parent activists in Connecticut and Pennsylvania say they are in the early stages of preparing similar lawsuits over teacher tenure. Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut parents Union, said 200,000 children are stuck in low-performing Connecticut schools.

"Teacher tenure doesn't ensure that those kids have an effective teacher," Samuel said. "Guaranteeing a person a job regardless of their performance is irresponsible."

But some say tenure rules are a small part of the reason some children have better teachers than others, also citing such factors as overcrowded schools, relatively low pay and chaotic working conditions.

"There are at least half a dozen strong reasons why we may not have as highly qualified a teacher force as we might like," said Michael Rebell, a Columbia University Teachers College professor and the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity.

Rebell said the tenure system could be improved but it's a small factor that "certainly doesn't rise to the level of a constitutional violation."

Even some who agree with the impulse behind the California lawsuit question whether the courts are the right arena for deciding which teachers stay or go.

"The intention here is entirely admirable," said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "I don't think the results are likely to turn out in a way that's going to actually promote reform."

He added, "It's not clear what exactly constitutes an acceptable teacher tenure standard. These are judgment calls."

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