Teacher tenure laws are being challenged in California by a group of nine public-school students. They're suing the state, claiming state laws mandating teacher seniority end up protecting incompetent teachers.
Raylene Monterroza said she fell behind in reading. She said, "I've had teachers that will not show up to class, and when they do show up, they sit in the corner, not doing anything. They don't teach."
In Los Angeles, teachers can secure tenure after only 16 months in the classroom, CBS News' Bill Whitaker reports.
Michelle Rhee ended teacher tenure when she ran Washington, D.C.,'s public schools. She called this California lawsuit a civil rights issue. She said, "Those kinds of laws have led to a situation where poor and minority children in the state are disproportionately impacted, meaning they are saddled with some of the lowest-performing teachers in the state."
Erika Jones teaches kindergarten in inner-city Los Angeles. She said, "There's this, you know, huge misconception that - you know, what is it - half of us are ineffective, 75 percent of us are ineffective."
She said the laws simply give teachers the right to due process if they are dismissed. Jones said, "The more that you want to focus on ineffective teachers, the less you're focusing on the fact that our schools are ineffectively funded and that these students are suffering every day, not because of a teacher, because they don't have the services they need."
The Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent, John Deasy, said firing even incompetent teachers can take years and cost on average $350,000 per case. He testified in support of the students' lawsuit. He said finite resources force tough decisions: "Take those resources and either invest to create greater supports for students or invest in a very lengthy process to remove ineffective teaching."
In 2013, the Los Angeles school district paid a $40,000 settlement to a third-grade teacher who was convicted of sexually abusing students. In return for the settlement, the teacher, Mark Berndt, agreed to stop challenging his dismissal. He is now serving 25 years in prison.
Rhee said, "We have to protect teachers' rights, but today's tenure systems in public education basically ensure that, once you have tenure, you have a job for life regardless of performance."
"You give me a school that is fully funded, and I'll give you effective teachers," Jones said. "We do so much with so little. You know, I spend, like, close to $5,000 on my classroom every year."
Asked if that's her own money, Jones said, "Yeah. We all do."
The students' lawsuit is funded by Silicon Valley millionaires seeking an overhaul of public education. The trial should conclude this month.