Law & Courts Opinion

Vergara v. California: What’s the Theory of Change?

By James E. Ryan — April 14, 2016 3 min read
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As I described in my last blog post, the trial court in Vergara v. California ruled that certain statutes governing the employment of teachers violated the right of students in California to a quality education. The sweeping decision struck down laws granting tenure, requiring that teacher layoffs occur based on seniority alone, and establishing procedures for teacher dismissal. The court decided that these laws made it too difficult to terminate the employment of (what the court termed) “grossly ineffective” teachers in Los Angeles, which in turn violated the rights of students.

A crucial part of the case turned on the fact that “grossly ineffective” teachers are not evenly distributed. Instead, these teachers are more likely to be clustered in schools where most of the students are poor and of color. Students in these schools, the court determined, are therefore being denied an equal opportunity to receive a quality education. Vergara is thus as much about equality as it is about education, and it fits a familiar and troubling narrative in public education: kids who need the most are given the least.

The fact that Vergara is about equal opportunity is important to remember in thinking through a key question about the case, which is simple to state but harder to answer: what is the theory of change underlying the lawsuit? Put differently, if the plaintiffs in Vergara win, is it plausible to believe that education in Los Angeles will improve?

The basic idea motivating the lawsuit is not hard to grasp: teachers matter, and if students have “grossly ineffective” teachers, their education will suffer. Laws and regulations that make it hard to fire “grossly ineffective” teachers increase the chances that students will be stuck with such teachers. That much is easy.

But notice that this is all about the back end of the process. What Vergara does not address is how those teachers got into the schools in the first place, why they are overrepresented in high-poverty, high-minority schools, and what, if anything, can be done about that. Being able to dismiss ineffective teachers would surely help on the back end, but what about the front end?

It is here that the theory of change is hard to discern. Suppose Vergara is upheld on appeal, and suppose the legislature enacts reforms that make it harder to get tenure, make it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers, and require that teacher performance as well as seniority govern layoffs. It is hard to see how those changes alone will disrupt the pattern of ineffective teachers being disproportionately clustered in high-poverty schools in the first place.

Perhaps the theory is simply that “grossly ineffective” teachers will be replaced by effective ones. But changing the rules about dismissal is not an obvious way to increase the overall supply of effective teachers. Nor is it likely to alter their distribution. Middle-income and affluent schools in California seem to have better teachers under the current set of uniform employment rules. In that state, why would that not also be the case under a different set of (still uniform) rules? If anything, making it easier to dismiss “grossly ineffective” teachers--and doing nothing else--could make it less attractive to teach in challenging schools where proving effectiveness can be more difficult, which might exacerbate rather than ameliorate the current inequities.

It may be that Vergara is just one part of a longer strategy. One could imagine future challenges that focus more on the front end of the process, including challenges to laws restricting the ability of principals to hire their own teachers. One could even envision a challenge to laws establishing attendance zones and school district lines, which help create high-poverty schools and lead to the inequities targeted in Vergara. It is nonetheless puzzling, in some respects, why the plaintiffs in Vergara only target one piece of the puzzle and start at the back end rather than the front end. Regardless, if Vergara is indeed just the first step, it is going to be a long journey.

The opinions expressed in Making the Case: Key Questions in Education Debates are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.