California Schools Challenger Would Drop Tenure-Ruling Appeal

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The challenger in the unexpectedly tight race for California's elected schools chief said Thursday that if he wins in November he would immediately withdraw the state superintendent from an appeal of a landmark legal decision that struck down teacher-tenure laws and other job protections.

Former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck said during an appearance before the Sacramento Press Club that unlike incumbent Tom Torlakson, a former high school teacher and career politician who enjoys strong backing from California's powerful teachers unions, he supports both the ruling and the goals of the student plaintiffs who brought the case, Vergara v. California.

"What is going on in California right now? We have students filing lawsuits to get a quality education because we are not leading and we are not doing right by them,'' said Tuck, whose candidacy to deny Torlakson a second term is supported by wealthy entrepreneurs and education reform groups.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge last month finalized his June ruling finding that five laws governing the hiring and firing of teachers violate the California Constitution by depriving some of the state's 6.2 million students of a quality education. The laws at issue, which dictate when teachers are given tenure, subject to budget-based layoffs and dismissed for unprofessional conduct, offer California teachers some of the of the nation's strongest professional safeguards.

Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown, the lawsuit's two defendants, have appealed the decision. So have California's two largest teachers unions, meaning the appeal would still move forward without Tuck's backing, if he wins.

Tuck said that notifying the court of his position nonetheless would be on his first actions if he defeats Torlakson.

"I'm going to say I'm not appealing it and I'm on the side of the plaintiffs,'' he said. "We'll say the state superintendent of this state believes strongly in the kids behind this lawsuit.''

Tuck said he also would convene a group of teachers, lawmakers and academic experts to recommend revisions to the challenged statutes that could be considered by the Legislature next year. California, for example, now grants teachers tenure, also known as "permanent employment,'' after two years on the job, which is sooner than in all but four other states. Tuck said the minimum threshold should be at least four years, both to give principals more time to evaluate new teachers and teachers more time to learn the ropes.

Polls show that of all the statewide offices voters will fill in November, the nonpartisan superintendent's race is currently the tightest. A Field Poll of likely voters released earlier this month found Torlakson and Tuck in a statistical tie with 41 percent still undecided.

Torlakson was invited to debate Tuck at the Sacramento Press Club event, but he declined because of a scheduling conflict, Paul Hefner, his campaign spokesman, said. Hefner said he thinks Tuck has been able to mount such a strong challenge because the contest between the two men, both Democrats, has not attracted a lot of attention.

"And because the superintendent's race is non-partisan, voters aren't told on ballot materials — or in the Field Poll — that Torlakson is the Democratic Party's nominee,'' he said.

In response to Tuck's comments on the teacher tenure case, Hefner said that Torlakson has already convened an expert panel to make recommendations for improving teacher quality in the state and that it concluded that strong job protections are an important component.

"The Wall Street formula _ throwing out the rules, tossing aside job protections_ nearly wrecked our economy. Why on earth would we risk letting someone with no experience as a teacher, principal or superintendent do the same thing to our public schools?'' he said.
 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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