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California students challenge teacher employment rules in lawsuit

By Laila Kearney

(Reuters) - A group of nine California students will challenge employment rules they complain force public schools in the most populous U.S. state to retain low performing teachers, as opening arguments kick off on Monday in a lawsuit over education policy.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn five California statutes that set guidelines for permanent employment, firing and layoff practices for K-12 public school teachers, saying the rules violate the constitutional rights of students by denying them effective teachers.

Among the rules targeted by the lawsuit is one that requires school administrators to either grant or deny tenure status to teachers after the first 18 months of their employment, which they complain causes administrators to hastily give permanent employment to potentially problematic teachers.

"The system is dysfunctional and arbitrary due to these outdated laws that handcuff school administrators from operating in a fashion that protects children and their right to quality education," attorney Theodore Boutrous of the education advocacy group Students Matter said in a media call.

The plaintiffs are also challenging three laws they say make it difficult to fire low-performing tenured teachers by requiring years of documentation, dozens of procedural steps and hundreds of thousands in public funds before a dismissal.

Lastly, the plaintiffs want to abolish the so-called "last-in first-out" statute, which requires administrators to lay off teachers based on reverse seniority.

The group says that the layoff policy disproportionately affects minority and low-income students, who are more likely to have entry-level teachers and poor quality senior teachers assigned to their district.

"When the layoffs come, the more junior teachers are laid off first, which ends up leaving a higher proportion what we call the ‘grossly ineffective' teachers," Boutrous said. "It's really a vicious cycle."

WORKPLACE RIGHTS

The plaintiffs, California public school students from elementary to high school-age, filed the lawsuit in May 2012 against Governor Jerry Brown, the California Department of Education, Superintendent Tom Torlakson and the California Board of Education.

Opponents of the lawsuit say it ignores the larger issue of education funding problems. If successful, they say the case would create an unstable system that would discourage new teachers.

"We don't think stripping teachers of their workplace professional rights will help students," said California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt.

The California Teachers Union and the California Federation of Teachers oppose the lawsuit and are backing the defendants.

"The way to help poor kids, and all kids, is to have a stable teaching force, (avoid) layoffs, lower class size and deal with the real problems poor kids face by dealing with lack of funding in those communities," he added.

Pechthalt said Students Matter was unfairly "scapegoating teachers and teachers unions for the problems in public education."

A California appeals court last month denied a request by the state and teachers unions to dismiss the case before going to trial, said Manny Rivera, a spokesman for the plaintiffs.

The trial is set to begin at 10 a.m. local time at the Los Angeles Superior Court Stanley Mosk Courthouse under Judge Rolf Treu.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Marguerita Choy)

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