Lawsuits on the western front

It seems like it’s a tougher time today than in days past to be a teachers’ union.   They are on the defensive all over the country.  From the public union battle royale in Wisconsin, to New York’s release of value-added data over union howls of rage (with the accompanying spectre of an implemented evaluation process), to the revolt of the urban mayors… teachers’ unions are under various sorts of legal, political, and institutional attack all over the country.

Out here in California, Students Matter has launched a lawsuit to strip away many of the institutional protections that teachers possess.  Howard Blume tells us all about it:

A Bay Area nonprofit backed partly by groups known for battling teachers unions has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn five California laws that, they say, make it too difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers.

The suit, filed on behalf of eight students, takes aim at California laws that govern teacher tenure rules, seniority protections and the teacher dismissal process.

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The group behind the legal action is the newly formed Students Matter. The founder is Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch and the group’s funders include the foundation of L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad.

The suit contends that teachers can earn tenure protections too quickly — in two years — well before their fitness for long-term employment can be determined. The suit also seeks to invalidate the practice of first laying off less experienced teachers during a budget crisis, rather than keeping the best teachers. And it takes aim at a dismissal process that, it alleges, is too costly, too lengthy and typically results in ineffective teachers holding on to jobs.

I’m uneasy about litigating what are essentially public policy questions in courts.  It’s not really what they’re designed to do, and they generally don’t do a good job of it.  (See, e.g., the consent decree for San Francisco public schools.)  But at the same time, sometimes it’s the only option left to people.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, to push too heavily against public employee union interests here in California.

Blume does an able job in his article tying this lawsuit to the overarching issue of teacher quality, and implying (correctly, I think) that this is part of a larger pushback against unions in general.

It’s not clear to me that these sorts of protections are going to help with teacher quality, though.  Procedural changes will only get you marginal improvements here and there.  If teacher quality is a serious concern (and I’m not 100% sure it’s a problem, though it seems plausible) then what you should really do is address the substantive issue: get a different sort of teacher ex ante.  To use an analogy: if the cars you build are not loved by the consumer, you have two options: increase your quality control, or design a better product.  And the unions wouldn’t have as much political leverage if you tried to tighten up teacher qualifications — indeed, they might support it so long as you grandfathered in all the existing teachers.  I’ve never met a union that didn’t like barriers to entry.