California's education laws are currently designed to almost unconditionally protect a group of adults -- teachers -- at the expense of our children.

And students living in poverty -- those most in need of every opportunity our public schools can offer -- are being disproportionately punished by these laws. The system tells them: sorry, teachers' jobs are more important than your education and your future.

Is that right?

No, it isn't, say the nine students who brought the Vergara v. California case, currently awaiting a ruling in Los Angeles Superior Court. The students are suing the state because five state laws are denying them -- and the other 6.2 million California public school students like them -- their constitutional right to a quality education.

If the court agrees, then the dysfunctional statutes controlling teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs will be struck down, creating a transformational opportunity to design a new system that puts students' needs first, ensures a high-quality teacher in every classroom and helps all Californians see a better future.

Supporting our teachers really matters. Effective teachers are essential for a well-educated California. Under current laws, though, the system fails to make effective teaching a priority, creating an environment that's bad for both hardworking teachers and students.

The tenure law forces administrators to grant lifetime employment to new teachers after less than 16 months in the classroom. I am aware of no other profession where someone is granted protected status in such a short time and without any real evidentiary basis for the decision.


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Once permanent employment is granted, it is nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers for any reason other than criminal activity. The dismissal process is so cumbersome and costly that in the past 10 years, only 19 teachers out of California's 1,052 school districts have been successfully terminated through the dismissal process for reasons including unsatisfactory performance.

When funding reductions instigate layoffs, administrators are not allowed to base staffing decisions on the quality of a teacher's service to children. The primary factor that may be considered is how long he or she has been employed by the district, so every year a district has layoffs, children lose passionate, hardworking, effective teachers -- just because they lack seniority.

As superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, I had to explain why excellent teachers were being let go, while parents pleaded and begged, saying, "Please, please keep this teacher. You don't understand what this year has been like for my child. This is one of the most extraordinary educators I've ever seen in my life."

But under the law, there is nothing we can do to keep that extraordinary educator.

Is the system I just described a system focused on what's best for children?

Not to me.

A system that prioritizes meeting the needs of California's students -- as the state constitution demands -- would focus on enhancing educational quality before protecting seniority.

A system that truly puts students' learning first would evaluate how well our students are doing and how much growth they are making.

We would discuss how to help teachers develop their practice, using growth in student learning as the primary data guiding our efforts.

When teachers demonstrate effective work in service of students, we would do everything in our power to enhance that work and reward those teachers. And when a few adults are consistently failing our children in the classroom, we would hold them accountable.

In a district like the Oakland Unified School District, where I served as superintendent for four years, 70 percent of students come from low-income households. Our students face serious challenges outside of school. For many students, the road leads either to graduation or incarceration. Having caring, attentive, effective teachers along the road makes all the difference.

Let's not lose sight of the goal of our public schools: to ensure that every child in the state has access to a good education, so every child can participate and thrive in our society.

I hope the Vergara student-plaintiffs are victorious in court. I hope the Vergara case marks a turning point in the trajectory of public education in California. Let's make a true commitment to current and future students: educational excellence, starting with an effective teacher in every classroom.

Tony Smith is a former superintendent of Oakland Unified School District.