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Simitian: Tenure ruling 'fairly reasoned'

Education issues were significant in the political portfolio of Joe Simitian, an attorney who served eight years on a school board and eight years in the state Senate for a district that included southern San Mateo County.

Mr. Simitian termed out in 2012, but it seemed appropriate to ask him about the meaning of a June 10 Superior Court judge's decision declaring laws governing teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority in California's public schools as unconstitutional. His analysis: The judge's decision was fairly reasoned and, if upheld, sets the stage for change.

Under current rules, administrators must decide whether to give a teacher permanent status after 18 months on the job. At the trial, a state witness said that up to 8,250 of California's 275,000 public school teachers are "grossly" ineffective, according to 16-page decision by Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Testimony included a study asserting that a classroom of students loses $1.4 million in lifetime earnings when taught by an ineffective teacher for one year.

Nine public school students sued the state and the state Department of Education in May 2012, alleging unequal access to a quality education as guaranteed in the state constitution. The non-jury trial ran from January to March of 2014. Representing the students was the nonprofit Students Matter, founded by Atherton resident and entrepreneur David Welch.

The judge's decision, which is stayed pending appeal, was "fairly reasoned, well written and fairly straightforward," Mr. Simitian said. In its wake, two institutions will be worth watching, he said: the appeals court where, he said, extensive litigation is likely, and the state Legislature. Legislators may act ahead of a decision on the appeal, but that would be unusual, he said.

New legislation could include tenure, but perhaps with longer evaluation periods, he said. Three to five years is common in other states, Mr. Simitian said, adding that three years used to be standard in California.

The judge did not deny teachers tenure, due process and seniority, he noted, only ruled that those privileges cannot infringe on a student's fundamental right to a quality education. If the decision is upheld because it struck down a tenure system that did deny a fundamental right, it will be the California Legislature's job to craft rules that do not, he said.

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