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Judge Affirms Vergara Ruling on Teacher Tenure; Calif. Chief Urges Appeal

By guest blogger Madeline Will

The ruling in a landmark case that struck down California's laws on teacher tenure and dismissal was affirmed Aug. 28 by a state superior court judge.

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in a statement released a day later that he will ask the state attorney general to seek appellate review of the decision. Teachers' unions also are appealing. Judge Rolf M. Treu ordered a stay on the ruling until all appeals are finalized.

The decision says that California's teacher-tenure and -dismissal laws unfairly saddle disadvantaged students with weaker teachers and infringes on those students' right under the state constitution to an equitable education—a victory for the plaintiffs, nine California students and their families.

The final Vergara v. California decision is identical to Judge Treu's tentative ruling from June. It 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.

Stephen Sawchuk talked to several legal experts about the questions still up in the air in this Education Week story  published after the tentative ruling came out.

Torlakson is facing a re-election challenge from Marshall Tuck, who is also a Democrat, on Nov. 4. Tuck is supportive of the Vergara ruling, and in a statement released after the decision was finalized, called on Torlakson to drop any plans for an appeal:

The Vergara ruling is a big win for the kids of California. Now that the Vergara ruling is official, my opponent State Superintendent Tom Torlakson and other Sacramento insiders should do the right thing for California kids and drop any plans to appeal the ruling. I applaud the nine students who took a courageous stand for all of California's kids. But the truth is, no student should ever have to go to court to get a quality education - and no elected official should ever put bureaucratic laws ahead of students' interest.

In Torlakson's statement, he said the ruling unfairly faults teachers:

While the statutes in this case are not under my jurisdiction as state superintendent, it is clear that the court's ruling is not supported by the facts or the law. Its vagueness provides no guidance about how the legislature could successfully alter the challenged statutes to satisfy the court. Accordingly, I will ask the attorney general to seek appellate review."

Meanwhile, the latest action has attracted a new round of statements from the field:

Theodore Boutrous, attorney for the plaintiffs:

"We are delighted that the Los Angeles Superior Court has finalized its landmark decision in Vergara v. California, which protects the fundamental rights of students across California. As the ruling makes clear, the evidence presented at trial was overwhelming and left no doubt in the judge's mind that the teacher employment statutes at issue are harming children every day. We urge the state of California and the teachers' unions to stop defending these harmful laws and start working towards a better education system that puts students' needs first."

Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association:

"This decision fails to recognize the benefits to students and society provided by the challenged statutes, including the ability to recruit and retain educators and promoting teaching as a life-long career. These statues provide educators with basic due-process rights that allow teachers to speak up on behalf of their students and provide transparency in district employment and layoff decisions."

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers:

"In ignoring all the real problems of public education, this is simply an anti-union attack masquerading as a civil rights issue. The central problems we face each day in the classroom are inadequate funding, poverty, lack of decent jobs in the communities surrounding our schools, and high turnover among younger teachers due to the pressures of those problems—none of which is addressed by the ruling in this case. ... This will make it harder to attract and retain young teachers."

Hanna Skandera, chairwoman of Chiefs for Change and New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary:

"Today's ruling reaffirms that students in California have a fundamental constitutional right to equality in education, and challenges California union leaders, elected officials, and educators to quickly replace outdated work rules and management practices with responsible policies that place the best teachers in front of the students who need them the most. Chiefs for Change extends this challenge to every state and school district across America that perpetuates inequity through outdated laws and policies."

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education:

"Today's final judgment issued by Judge Treu represents a landmark victory in upholding the constitutional right of California's students to effective classroom teachers. I applaud Judge Treu on his verdict and commend the families who persevered and triumphed over the entrenched special interests of the education establishment. Unfortunately, the teachers' union reaction underscores their resistance to putting the needs of students in the system ahead of protecting the status quo."

Similar sentiments were expressed in June, when the tentative ruling came out.

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