State Court Upholds California Teacher Tenure Laws

Plaintiffs Julia Macias, left, Beatriz Vergara, Elizabeth Vergara and Kate Elliot with attorney Ted Boutrous, from a press conference in 2014EXPAND
Plaintiffs Julia Macias, left, Beatriz Vergara, Elizabeth Vergara and Kate Elliot with attorney Ted Boutrous, from a press conference in 2014

California's controversial teacher protection laws are safe — for now. 

Over four years ago — May 2012 — a group of nine public school students filed a lawsuitVergara v. California, challenging five laws that govern how teachers can be fired in California, including the teacher tenure law and the "last in, first out" law that says teacher layoffs must be done in reverse order of seniority. 

The suit was paid for by the nonprofit Students Matter, founded (and largely funded) by telecom millionaire David Welch.

The plaintiffs argued that the laws allowed "grossly ineffective" teachers to keep their jobs, and violated the California Constitution by having a disproportionate effect on poor and minority students. Judge Rolf Treu agreed. In his August 2014 decision, Treu wrote, "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience."

But in April of this year, the court of appeals overturned the decision. The three-judge panel ruled that it was up to the individual schools and school districts to assign teachers. 

"Critically, plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students," the court wrote. "The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are 'a good idea.'"

The plaintiffs asked for the case to be heard by the state Supreme Court, which was always expected to be the final arbiter. But in something of a surprise, the court decided today to not hear the case — making the appeal court ruling final. 

"I'm pleased," says Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "The decision throws into question the attempt by people like David Welch and Students Matter and the other millionaires and billionaires to change public education by using the courts, rather than by legislation."

Three of the seven Supreme Court justices wanted the court to hear the case. In his dissent, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote: "There is a difference between the usual blemishes in governance left as institutions implement statutes or engage in routine tradeoffs and those staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise. Knowing the difference is as fundamental as education itself. Which is why I would grant review."

"The dissenting Justices had it right — the court should have taken this case," said Students Matter attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., in a statement. "To have two lengthy, powerful dissenting opinions from the denial of review is extraordinary in California history. Even though the court denied review, the words of Justices Liu and Cuéllar will resonate across California and the nation, and hopefully help bring about the change we so desperately need."

The battle to reform public education in California will now likely shift back to the Legislature, which historically has been dominated by the teachers union. But the California Charter Schools Association ha been spending heavily in state legislative races and is expected to challenge the teacher unions for supremacy in the next few years. 

"It does worry me," says Pechthalt. "They’re trying to shape public education in a way that’s not frankly inclusive. It’s a problem."


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