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Here’s one vision of the future for California public schools: Every teacher is effective. Schools are free of child molesters. Schools provide quality instruction time to every kid in every classroom.
These are all possibilities, judging from this season of potential change for the state’s public schools.
In recent weeks, a trio of separate but related actions has taken aim at the state in efforts that proponents say would improve the safety and academic performance of California’s 6.2 million public school students. But whether they would, in fact, lead to constructive change or serve merely as change for change sake remains to be seen.
If all three efforts succeed, one outcome is clear: the state and school districts would have new responsibilities aimed at providing students a better learning environment through changes that could hold important benefits for low-income and minority children.
In chronological order:
- The ACLU of Southern California and two other law firms in late May filed a class action in an Alameda County state court — Cruz v. California — on behalf of 18 students from seven schools, charging that students are being denied adequate instruction time. Two of the schools are in LA Unified — Fremont High School and Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School. Another two are in Compton Unified —Compton High and Franklin S. Whaley Middle School.
- Early this month, a state superior court in Los Angeles delivered a stunning victory to nine student-plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, striking down a series of state laws that govern teacher protections as a way to remove ineffective teachers from their classrooms.
- Last week, with unanimous support in both chambers, the state Assembly and Senate sent a bill to Gov. Jerry Brown that would make it easier to get rid of teachers accused of immoral and illegal behavior.
While there are no direct links among the three actions, they combine to suggest that additional measures are needed to protect the rights of school children in their quest for a quality education, which, in turn, affects their career prospects and lifetime earning potential. And the proponents in all three want to hold the state accountable.
“The state went off the rails a long time ago, and it’s becoming increasing frustrating,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU. “Left to its own devices, the state is not going to do anything to change.”
As obvious as the troublesome issues appear to the proponents of change, opposing forces in the lawsuits can keep the status quo in place for years through appeals.
That is certainly true in Vergara. While the state has not commented on whether it intends to appeal, its union partners — the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and the California Teachers Association (CTA)— have said they would, arguing that the laws are fine the way they are and provide teachers important job protections.
The judge in the case, Rolf Treu, said he would stay any state action — i.e. legislation to satisfy his decision — until appeals have been exhausted.
The Cruz case is only just beginning, and Rosenbaum said he is hoping for a trial to begin “within a year.” It cites free periods, security disruptions, mid-semester course changes and transient teachers as among the causes of lost instruction time. Those factors, the suit contends “systematically deprive” students of “meaningful learning time”
The bill awaiting Gov. Brown’s signature is more narrowly defined, aimed almost exclusively at teachers accused of such offenses as felonies and child molestation.
All three actions have potential ripple effects. The Vergara trial has triggered an enormous wave of public debate across the country over case’s central issues — the benefits and proper length of tenure, how dismissals should work and the criteria districts should use to layoff teachers in times of budget cutbacks.
“It boils down to this,” said Marcellus McRae, a lawyer for the Vergara plaintiffs. “If state constitutional protections are a pathway to helping students in California, other states will say, ‘We can do this, too.’ This is a very strong reminder that that courts are an avenue and the proper place to get enforcement.”
Rosenbaum said the issues in Cruz should serve as a template for other districts in which budgets, administrative malfeasance or indifference have worked to deny students learning time.
Only the law aimed at problem teachers can initiate more immediate action. Gov. Brown has 12 days to sign it once it reaches his desk. So far, it hasn’t, according to his communications office. If he does sign, it would go into effect in January — a big change for students, with maybe more to come.