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State Judge Strikes Down California's Laws on Teacher Tenure, Dismissal

UPDATED

California's teacher-tenure and -dismissal laws unfairly saddle disadvantaged students with weaker teachers, infringing on those students' right under the state constitution to an equitable education, a state superior court judge ruled June 10.

The tentative ruling strikes down the laws in question. It will be finalized within 30 days, and spells a complete victory for the plaintiffs, nine California students and their families.

The landmark decision in Vergara v. California says for the first time that the state's constitutional guarantee to an equitable education includes having access to quality teaching—a step beyond the right to sufficient instructional time and money that rulings in previous equity suits have established.

The ruling was expected to be appealed immediately by the state and by the two statewide teachers' unions, who intervened as defendants in the suit; Judge Rolf Treu stayed any changes in the law until the appeals are settled.

"Evidence has been solicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience," Treu wrote in the 16-paged tentative ruling.

It's unclear yet whether California's legislature, fearing additional litigation and the weight of more bad press, might rework the laws in question on its own. Just Monday, the state Senate approved a bill that would make it somewhat quicker to fire a teacher for "egregious misconduct," but it's less clear how it would affect dismissal for poor performance.

Back and Forth

The lawsuit was brought by the nonprofit Students Matter on behalf of nine California students. It was argued by a high-powered legal team chaired by famed litigators Theodore Boutrous and Theodore Olson. The plaintiffs sought to overturn five sections of the state education code that they said made it too difficult to fire the worst teachers—even those who couldn't spell or used abusive language with students—and that needy and minority students were most often placed in their classrooms. 

The laws in question require teachers to be granted tenure after just two years; compel layoffs to be made on the basis of seniority; and establish a lengthy process for firing tenured teachers.

The defendants argued that teacher tenure is necessary to attract and retain teachers, and that there's little evidence that the laws in question have had a disparate impact on poor or minority students. They said that "well managed" districts had no problems addressing teacher quality, and that the entire trial distracted from more important concerns, such as the need to provide financial resources and supports for teachers and students in high-poverty, high-minority schools.

Oral arguments in the bench trial, which was heard in Los Angeles County Superior Court, spanned nearly two months. Education researchers, economists, administrators, and teachers took turns disputing the laws' effects.

Equally important has been the lawsuit's subtext, which reflects a contentious national debate about teacher quality and teachers' unions. Some supporters view Vergara as a necessary step given what they see as teachers' unions unwillingness to address teacher quality. Critics of the legal action, meanwhile, highlighted the lawsuit's bankrolling by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and Students Matter's ties to individuals that have a history of battling with the unions. They argue wealthy individuals are attempting to force their favored policy on the state.

The ruling also comes as more states take a critical look at teacher tenure and dismissal rules. Nationally, some 16 states have taken steps to tie tenure-granting to teacher performance; seven return teachers with weak evaluations to probationary status. Florida and Kansas have both eliminated either the continuing employment or due process associated with tenure; North Carolina did, too, but that move was recently declared unconstitutional.

National Implications

Notably, Treu on several occasions cited the defense's expert witnesses to bolster his ruling. For example, he said that Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Susan Moore Johnson had testified that dismissals in California were "extremely rare." 

Treu also cited research literature based on the use of "value added" methods, which use statistical techniques to isolate teachers' impact on student test scores. The defense had sought to paint value-added as a flawed and unreliable tool.

Any appeals will take months and possibly years to sort out. Even then, the ruling could have effects far beyond the Golden State.

Some observers, though sympathetic to the plaintiffs' claims, expressed concerned about possible judicial implications from the ruling.

"Should California's courts accept the group's legal rationale, which hinges on disparate-impact analysis, the floodgates could open for litigation calling for even greater judicial control over California's schools," wrote Joshua Dunn, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and Martha Derthick, a professor emerita of government at the University of Virginia, in the fall 2014 edition of Education Next. "Anyone could challenge any law, however neutral in design, with a claim that it was somehow related to an unequal outcome."

Meanwhile, dozens of other states also have education-equity clauses in their constitutions. Case law on such matters in each state differs, but Mr. Boutrous and his team have said they want to take the core legal strategy in Vergara elsewhere.

Watch this blog item for updates and reaction to the judge's ruling. And soon, on edweek.org, I'll have a longer, more analytical take on this decision.

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