RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
To California now where a polarizing lawsuit goes to trial tomorrow. At issue, whether job protections for public school teachers undermines students' constitutional rights to an adequate education. The students and parents who filed the lawsuit say it could provide a model for challenging teacher protection laws in other states. But to unions and state officials, all the lawsuit does is demonize teachers.
NPR's Eric Westervelt has the story.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The crux of Vergara versus California is whether retaining ineffective teachers violates students' constitutional right to equality of education. The suit aims to overturn California laws the plaintiffs say make it extremely hard if not impossible to fire bad teachers. Twelve-year-old Daniella Martinez is one of the plaintiffs. Her mother Karen says incompetent teachers undermined her daughter's early education.
KAREN MARTINEZ: My daughter cried every day to get her to school. She couldn't read, so she was frustrated. The teachers that she had at that time didn't take the time to help her to learn and to help her figure out basic simple things - pronunciations. I mean being prepared in class to teach your students. That's what you're there for. That's your job.
WESTERVELT: All that the teachers and administrators told us, Martinez says, was get a tutor. Martinez has six other children. Her husband is a trucker. She says we're a lower income family, we couldn't afford a tutor.
The lawsuit argues that five state laws, including teacher tenure after 18 months and a last in, first out layoff policy ignore teacher quality and allow weak teachers to keep teaching. And the lawsuit alleges that these education statutes disproportionately affect minority and low-income students.
Ted Boutrous, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, calls it the dance of the lemons.
TED BOUTROUS: Many of the grossly ineffective teachers with seniority are shunted off to the lower income and minority districts that are often are viewed as less desirable positions. Then when the layoffs come, the more junior teachers are laid off first, which ends up leaving a higher proportion of what we call grossly ineffective teachers. And so it's really a vicious circle.
WESTERVELT: The lawsuit is sponsored by Students Matter, a non-profit founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch. Its backers see the case as a possible model for taking on similar statutes in other states they say protect bad teachers at the expense of kids. So the national unions have their eyes on this case too. Right now, it's being opposed by top state officials and two California teachers unions. They argue the suit will undermine due process and lead to arbitrary dismissals.
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers. She says the suit makes teachers scapegoats for much bigger problems.
RANDI WEINGARTEN: They decided instead to go after individual teacher rights in the guise of helping children. Instead of working on fighting segregation, on fighting for equity, what this group of lawyers are doing is actually just trying to strip individual teachers' rights away.
MARTINEZ: Or as one education professor once put it: America can't fire its way to Finland, which famously out performs U.S. students on standardized tests.
WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.
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MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.