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Bringing the Classroom to Court: The Battle for Teacher Protection

Two sets of lawsuits currently moving through the courts have the potential to upend the way teachers unions operate, first in California and potentially across the country.

In one strand, students — backed by education nonprofits — are suing in state courts to overturn laws dealing with teacher job security, discipline and dismissal. The plaintiffs there argue that those teacher protection laws resulted in underperforming teachers disproportionately concentrated in schools serving poor and minority students, depriving them of their right to an equal education.

The other case, currently pending in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court based in San Francisco, would overturn laws in California — and potentially nationally — that require public employees to pay union dues even if they oppose the group’s positions. It follows on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on a similar dispute in Illinois.

The first group of cases started in California, where a state superior court judge in June issued a preliminary ruling in Vergara v. California in favor of the plaintiffs. The judge said evidence showing lost learning time and reduced lifetime earnings of those who studied under poor teachers is “compelling” and “shocks the conscience.”

The lawsuit’s goal wasn’t to overturn the five laws it targeted in particular, but rather to eliminate what Felix Schein says are barriers preventing every child in California from having the best teacher possible. Schein is a spokesman for Students Matter, the nonprofit backing the students.

The unions, for their part, said the lawsuit is a distraction from real problems in California schools.

The state has the lowest per-pupil spending and the fewest librarians and nurses per school of any state, along with widespread problems with child poverty, said Gary Ravani, president of the early childhood and K-12 council at the California Federation of Teachers.

“Those are real, on-the-ground problems,” he said.

Any effects of the lawsuit were stayed pending appeal, which will happen after the final decision is issued. Plaintiffs have asked for that by late August or early September.

This type of case is unlikely to stop in California, though.

Students Matter is committed to seeing Vergara through, be it via continuing to litigate, working to help draft new state laws or helping craft broader education policy, Schein said. After that, they’re open to bringing similar lawsuits in other states.

There are only a handful of states where that’s possible, though. Not every state has laws guaranteeing an equal education similar to those the plaintiffs used to fight the laws in California. In others, recent legislative changes or executive branch actions in education policy don’t allow for a full body of evidence that would show detrimental evidence of tenure policies.

That leaves about 20 states. The group then looked for states that either had low overall education performance or big disparities between the best and worst-performing schools, Schein said.

Ultimately a handful — Minnesota, New Mexico, Maryland, Connecticut and Washington — are likely targets, he said.

Other groups are taking up the cause as well, with two similar cases pending in New York.

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