By Laila Kearney
(Reuters) - A group of nine California students challenged employment rules in court on Monday that they complain force public schools in the most populous U.S. state to retain low-performing teachers, mainly in poor and minority schools.
At the start of a trial challenging state education employment policy, attorneys argued that California guidelines for permanent hiring, firing and layoff practices for K-12 public school teachers violate the constitutional rights of students by denying them effective teachers.
The lawsuit, opposed by teacher union leaders, comes at a time of bitter political wrangling over how best to reinvigorate a U.S. public school system that leaves American children lagging counterparts in countries like Finland and South Korea.
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.
"School districts, like any other organization, need to be able to manage their workforce in a rational way with a primary focus on putting the highest quality teachers in front of students," attorney Theodore Boutrous of the education advocacy group Students Matter said during opening statements. "But they can't do it because of these statutes."
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 significant amounts of 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 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 layoffs hit, junior teachers typically go first, which Boutrous argued leaves a higher number of "grossly ineffective" teachers behind.
He cited a study of the Los Angeles Unified School District that said black students were over 40 percent more likely to be taught by an underachieving instructor than their white peers.
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 and district mismanagement. If successful, they say the case would create an unstable system that could fail to attract qualified teachers to a job that often offers low pay for hard work.
"We don't think stripping teachers of their workplace professional rights will help students," said California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt.
James Finberg, attorney for the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers said the tenure and dismissal statutes in question provide necessary "due process" for teachers, who could otherwise be subject to favoritism or politics when facing a firing.
State Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias said low- performing teachers were sometimes assigned to teach subjects inappropriate for their skill sets, or suffered from a lack of teaching resources.
He argued that the small number of ineffective teachers in California schools could also often be reformed or persuaded to leave willingly.
"In well-managed school districts, struggling teachers either improve or leave on their own without needing to go through the dismissal process," Elias said.
He said unequal distribution of junior teachers to poor and minority students was a result of faulty district management and not a direct result of the statutes. But he added that many factors causing the learning gap between affluent and poor students were beyond the control of the school system and a result of poverty, language barriers and troubled home life.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Marguerita Choy and Eric Walsh)