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'Vergara' plaintiffs want to scrap teacher tenure law — this LA teacher wants to expand it

Roshni Mejia wasn't afraid to speak up – in fact, she said, she was supposed to speak up.

As co-chair of the teachers union at Manual Arts High School, Mejia said it was occasionally her job to speak frankly to her bosses. She wrote to the board of L.A.'s Promise, the non-profit that runs Manual Arts, to criticize their plans to open charter schools. She raised concerns about the school's discipline policy.

"I thought there was an understanding," said Mejia, who'd been at Manual Arts for a year and a half, "that I'm going to do my job, and that may mean we disagree."

But that all changed on February 18, when Manual Arts' principal called Mejia into her office.

She told Mejia, who didn't have tenure, that she would be "non-reelected" — which means Mejia would not get tenure. Instead, she'd be transferred to another school until the end of the year. After that, she's effectively fired.

The principal didn't tell Mejia why she had been fired. But Mejia shared her job evaluations with KPCC — from her first year at Manual Arts, and from the Los Angeles charter school where she'd taught for three years. Her evaluations were solid. Her L.A. Unified personnel file showed no problems.

Both L.A.'s Promise and a school district spokesperson declined to comment; the district doesn't comment on personnel matters.

But Mejia and local teachers union leaders believe the school's administration was punishing her for her union activities. They're now fighting to get her job back.

That fight is playing out against the backdrop of a larger debate about teacher job protections. The plaintiffs in the Vergara v. California case are waging a high-stakes legal battle to throw out the state's tenure laws, arguing teacher job protections ultimately harm the state's most vulnerable students by safeguarding "grossly ineffective" educators' jobs.

A state appellate court recently ruled against the Vergara plaintiffs, but they've promised to try to take the fight in the California Supreme Court.

Mejia's case highlights what makes tenure an emotional issue for teachers unions and their leaders, who say the laws help teachers advocate for their students' interests as much as their own. In the midst of a teacher shortage, Mejia said — if anything — some of tenure's job protections ought to be extended to new teachers.

"Why would anyone want to enter this profession when you can be fired at the drop of a hat?" Mejia said. "Why? It's already a really hard job. It is not easy. And you want to just, then, put in the added stress of, 'You can be fired for anything? Or nothing?'"

Members of the United Teachers Los Angeles union march outside Manual Arts High School in South L.A. calling for the reinstatement of teacher Roshni Mejia, who co-chaired the school's union chapter.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Members of the United Teachers Los Angeles union march outside Manual Arts High School in South L.A. calling for the reinstatement of teacher Roshni Mejia, who co-chaired the school's union chapter.

But Vergara plaintiffs contend California's teacher tenure laws rush administrators into granting protections to teachers who might not deserve them. State law dictates administrators must extend tenure protections to teachers by March 15 of their second year in the classroom — a timeframe shorter than in all but four other states.

"Teachers are being reelected who would not have been had more time been provided for the process," wrote L.A. County Judge Rolf Treu in the 2014 ruling that kicked off the Vergara saga. "Conversely, startling evidence was presented that in some districts, including LAUSD, the time constraint results in non-reelection based on 'any doubt,' thus depriving (1) teachers of an adequate opportunity to establish their competence and (2) students of potentially competent teachers."

Plaintiffs also presented evidence that teacher job protections like tenure conspired to stick poor and minority students with the worst teachers; teachers unions disputed that, taking aim at the "valued added models" behind that evidence.

Teachers' feelings about tenure appear to be mixed. According to a 2014 survey by the group Teach Plus, 55 percent of California teachers had seen tenure protect a colleague from unfair discipline. Four out of five teachers said having tenure was important to them.

But 69 percent of California teachers had also seen tenure protect ineffective teachers from administrators who would otherwise remove them the classroom. About three-quarters of teachers say administrators need more time to decide whether to grant tenure.

"While most teachers highly value tenure, a large majority of surveyed teachers recognize the need for change in how tenure decisions are made, who is involved in granting it, and how long it takes to earn it," according to a Teach Plus report on the survey.

Vergara plaintiff Raylene Monterroza, who attended public schools in Pasadena and Long Beach, said she got involved in the case because she found the teacher job protections unfair.

"Unless we keep speaking up, nobody will know how it feels to see the teacher that change their life lose their job because of rules that don't make sense to anyone," said Monterroza.

While the plaintiffs may have lost their appeal in the California Court of Appeals, they hope the case will at least spur the legislature to consider changing state laws that protect teacher jobs.

"These issues were untouchable. You just couldn't mention them without getting laughed out of the halls in Sacramento," said Ben Austin, policy director for Students Matter, a group behind the Vergara case.

Now, "we think that this decision ratchets up the pressure on the state legislature to act," Austin said.

But Mejia said the protections help empower teachers unions to advocate on their students' behalf.

"I feel like our union contract protects our students as much as our teachers. When we talk about class size being in the contract, and class caps, it's not just to give the teachers an easier time — it's so we can give our students one-on-one attention that they deserve," Mejia said.

Mejia wants her firing rescinded so she can at least get another teaching job — and while she doesn't have the protections of tenure, she does have the support of her union.

They've filed a formal complaint with the state's Public Employment Relations Board demanding Mejia's reinstatement. UTLA leaders and lawyers say they feel like they have a strong case that Manual Arts' administrators were retaliating for Mejia's union activity.

"We think it’s a slam dunk," said the union's president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, in testimony to before the school board earlier this month. L.A. Unified has until Monday, April 25, to post its response to the union's complaint.

Mejia said she has no regrets for speaking out.

"Not one part of me would be like, 'Aw man, if I had to start over,' I'd take a back seat," Mejia said.

"If I see an injustice, especially to my students, I'm going to do something about it."