California teacher ruling has implications for Nevada, too


We should all be able to agree that schools exist to educate students, to prepare them for higher education and the workforce, and to equip them with the knowledge and values to perpetuate American democracy for another generation.

And we should all be able to agree that teachers perform a vital role in that process, and should be accorded the respect and the salary that such an important responsibility dictates.

Good teachers, that is. Not bad ones.

On Tuesday, a California Superior Court judge ruled several laws aimed at governing teacher evaluations, discipline and terminations violate the Golden State’s equal protection clause, because they effectively make firing bad teachers impossibly difficult. Judge Rolf M. Treu struck the laws down, but stayed his ruling to await the inevitable appeal.

Why should Nevadans care? Not only does our state’s constitution find its roots in California’s, but a similar lawsuit could easily be filed in Nevada. And while we’ve seen some reforms to teacher discipline and tenure in our Legislature in recent sessions, getting rid of bad teachers here is almost as difficult as it is in California.

Treu’s ruling starts with cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, as well as some seminal California cases, to establish that states can’t discriminate based on race, can’t fund districts unequally and can’t give some students a longer school year than others. But the judge takes things further when he says those cases also suggest the idea that students should not be subject to unequal quality of education because they get stuck with a bad teacher. (And the judge’s ruling estimates there are between 2,750 and 8,250 bad teachers in California.)

And while the problem affects all students, Treu’s ruling says bad teachers more often than not are found in schools that serve students in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

In California, teachers get tenure after just two years (it’s three here in Nevada), and firing a bad teacher can take as long as a decade and cost up to half a million dollars. As a result, district officials often don’t bother, Treu’s ruling says, creating a sort of “uber due process.”

“There is no question that teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought,” the judge wrote. “However, based on the evidence before this court, it finds the current system required by the Dismissal Statutes to be so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.”

Here, Treu doesn’t spend as much time as he should have describing how the fundamental right of students to get a good education should be balanced with the right of teachers to due process. It’s one of several legal vulnerabilities in the ruling.

Treu also struck down requirements that more recently hired teachers be dismissed before more senior teachers, noting California is one of only 10 states that use seniority as a strict rule when it comes to layoffs. And while seniority often provides valuable experience for teachers, it’s doesn’t guarantee teacher quality. (In Nevada, seniority is a factor in layoffs, but not the only one.)

Everybody should be able to agree that bad teachers hurt kids, not only by depriving them of knowledge and abilities, but also by robbing them of future educational opportunities and earning potential. And it looks like everyone does; Treu says both the children and their guardians attacking the job-protection laws and the California Education Association concur on that point.

The fact is, job protection rules in California and Nevada were enacted to prevent arbitrary or capricious treatment of teachers. But they were never meant to thwart appropriate discipline for teachers who are simply not getting the job done. No teacher who is doing his or her job should be in fear of losing it for grounds unrelated to performance. But those who fail cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the true mission of the schools. There’s simply too much at stake.

The Legislature should consider that, before a similar lawsuit is filed in this state.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.