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Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Daily News

Since last OctoberDropout Nation has reported on the efforts of Southern California families led byactivist Alice Callaghan (with backing from the school reform group EdVoice) against the Los Angeles Unified School District, charging that the district had continually violated its obligations under the state’s Stull Act to adequately evaluate teachers and demanding the district to reform its teacher evaluation system. Since then, the Callaghan families have been joined by City of Angels Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (who has filed a friend-of-the-court brief also pushing for the district to fully comply with the Stull Act and revamp its teacher and principal performance management systems) and has gotten covert support from the district’s superintendent, John Deasy (who is engaged in his own battle with the American Federation of Teachers’ Tinseltown local over revamping how the district pays teachers and manages its performance).

By the end of this week, the Callaghan families may get some results. Today, L.A. Superior Court Judge James Chalfant handed down a preliminary ruling requiring the district to begin using student performance data in its teacher evaluations. Agreeing with the plaintiffs that L.A. Unified “does not currently comply” with California’s Stull Act an Chalfant is likely to grant their petition for declaratory relief, allowing the district to use the Golden State’s battery of standardized tests in determining how well its veteran and newly-hired instructors are doing in improving student achievement and providing kids with nurturing-yet-challenging learning environments. Chalfant also agreed with the Callaghan families that principals and other school leaders were subject to the Stull Act, meaning that the district had to evaluate their performance as well.

Chalfant went a step further and rejected the argument made by the California Public Employee Relations Board (and echoed by  the American Federation of Teachers’ City of Angels affiliate in its response to the suit)  that the Callaghan families didn’t have standing to sue over L.A. Unified’s teacher evaluation process because they were neither civil servants or the district that employs them. In the ruling, Chalfant notes that the argument doesn’t hold when the district and a teachers’ union enters into a contract that violates state law. Given that Chalfant finds that the evaluation system L.A. Unified and the district put into place doesn’t abide by the Stull Act, the Callaghan families (and other parents) have more than adequate standing to intervene in the contractual arrangement. Wrote Chalfant: “Whatever the collective bargaining rights of the District and unions… the parties and PERB cannot avoid the District’s mandatory legal duty”.

Again, this is a preliminary hearing, and one should expect the AFT and the PERB to appeal the final ruling. But the Callaghan families suit, also known as Doe v, Deasy, has already spurred other reformers in California to use the courts to take action. Last month, Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, and Parent Power activist outfit Parent Revolution teamed up to back a similar teacher quality tort, this time against L.A. Unified, the Alum Rock school district in San Jose, and California’s state government itself; although the Vergara v. California suit is targeted toward the state’s reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) hiring policies, the tort makes similar arguments about how state and district policies protect laggard teachers at the expense of poor and minority children, violating their right to a equal (and high-quality) education. Today’s preliminary ruling will likely encourage even more Parent Power activists and others to take the legal approach to advancing reform.

But school choice activists and others, both in Calicould go even further. As Dropout Nation elaborated last year, reformers can easily use the “free public education” clauses found in most state constitutions to advance choice, particularly by interpreting those clauses to allow for children to attend any public school they want, be it traditional or charter, in any part of the state. Under such interpretations, practices that have led to zip code education, including the concept of zoned schools, are essentially unconstitutional; and thus, inter-district choice of the kind encouraged by otherwise foes of choice such as Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation would be allowable. Through such suits, charter school activists and choice proponents could end restrictions on the expansion of public charter schools, the nation’s most-prominent form of school choice, and in the case of those states without so-called Blaine amendments barring the use of public funding for parochial schools, could either lead to the launch of voucher programs or force states to overhaul school funding in order to allow for those funds to provide kids with any school opportunity.

All of this, in turn, could spur American public education to be transformed into a system in which the families can choose the best educational opportunities for the children they love, and in which high-quality teaching and curricula is the norm and not the exception. And for that, the Callaghan families suit will have done more than a few measures of good.

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