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UPDATE: Attorneys Argue Removing Tenure Laws Bad For Students, Teachers

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(Photo credit BORYANA KATSAROVA/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit BORYANA KATSAROVA/AFP/Getty Images)

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Loss of the state’s teacher tenure laws would be bad for students and teachers alike, an attorney for teachers told a judge Thursday.

Attorney James Finberg told Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu that tossing the job protection of tenure would leave teachers vulnerable to the whims of angry parents and ineffective administrators.

Attorneys for nine students who brought the lawsuit say that current law saddles students with incompetent teachers who are all but impossible to fire.

But Finberg said under-performing administrators who fail to run their districts well and supervise their teachers properly are the real problem. Of the nine students who brought the lawsuit, he said none were able to prove they had ever had an ineffective teacher.

Closing arguments were expected to end Thursday, but it was unclear when Treu would rule.

Attorneys for the students earlier told Treu that existing tenure laws deny thousands of California students their right to a good education by making it nearly impossible for administrators to fire bad teachers or retain good ones and must be struck down.

Because of that law and others regarding seniority and teacher discipline, thousands of incompetent teachers remain in California’s classrooms year after year, attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. said.

Boutrous said saddling a student with a bad teacher for just one year can cost a youngster tens of thousands of dollars in future lifetime earnings, influence whether the youngster gets to college and adversely affect the youngster’s life in numerous personal ways.

“When a student has a grossly ineffective teacher, it harms them. It harms them for the rest of their lives,” Boutrous said.

Finberg rejected the argument that teacher tenure hurts the quality of education.

“Striking the statute would do nothing to improve things in poorly managed districts,” he said. “Indeed, giving poorly run districts more authority would make things worse.”

Under current law, California public schoolteachers can obtain tenure after two years, which Boutrous argued doesn’t give administrators enough time to fairly evaluate a new teacher. He suggested three to five years would make more sense.

Once teachers obtain tenure, said his fellow plaintiffs’ attorney, Marcellus McRae, statistics show it is almost impossible to fire them.

He cited testimony during the two-month trial that of California’s 275,000 teachers, only an average of 2.2 a year are fired.

McRae also noted that Los Angeles Schools Superintendent John Deasy testified during the trial that it can take over two years on average to fire an incompetent teacher and sometimes as long as 10. The cost of doing so, he said, can run anywhere from $250,000 to $450,000.

McRae also attacked seniority laws requiring that the last teachers hired be among the first fired when a cash-strapped school district must lay off employees. He noted that one former teacher of the year who testified during the trial said that was the reason she lost her job.

When openings do occur, McRae argued, they often are at poor schools with large minority student populations, the places where he said ineffective teachers are often shunted off to because it’s too hard to fire them.

“Have we not had enough in this country’s history of short-shafting minority and poor people?” he asked in a sometimes impassioned closing argument. “This is unconscionable. This has to stop.”

Teachers union officials say those job protections are vital to attracting and keeping quality teachers in a profession already losing talented people to higher-paid private-sector positions.

They have pointed out that since Deasy became superintendent, the number of schoolteachers fired in his district has increased substantially.

During the 2009-2010 school year, only 10 teachers were fired. During the 2011-2012 year, after Deasy joined the district, 99 teachers were fired and 122 others resigned rather than risk being fired.

The trial represents the latest battle in a nationwide movement to abolish or toughen the standards for granting teachers permanent employment protection and seniority-based preferences during layoffs. Dozens of states have moved in recent years to get rid of or raise the standards for obtaining such protections.

More than 150 people, including numerous students, parents, teachers and administrators, were in court to hear Thursday’s closing arguments.

Among them were many of the nine students who brought the lawsuit, Vergara v. California. Also present were Deasy and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.

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