By Emmanuel Felton
A California appeals court, reversing a trial court’s ruling in the landmark Vergara case, has found that California’s job-protection laws for teachers do not in fact violate the state constitution’s equal protection guarantee.
The appeals court ruled April 14 that the plaintiffs in the Vergara case had failed to prove sufficiently that the state’s teacher-employment laws, including tenure and termination provisions, “inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students.”
In a unanimous decision, the panel of three judges ruled that while the job-protection laws may in fact lead to the employment and retention of more bad teachers, the statues say nothing about how those ineffective teachers are assigned.
“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,” wrote Presiding Justice Roger Boren.
The trial court’s ruling—citing a California Department of Education report that established that high-poverty schools were far more likely to employ high numbers of ineffective teachers—had given credence to the notion that there was a so-called “dance of the lemons” in school districts because administrators were restricted from terminating poorly performing teachers. The appellate judges ruled, however, that the department of education report never suggested that the employment-law statutes caused those disparities. They instead placed blame on the “counterproductive hiring and placement practices” of district administrators.
“This phenomenon is extremely troubling and should not be allowed to occur,” the justices argued. “But it does not inevitably flow from the challenged statutes, and therefore cannot provide the basis for a facial challenge to the statutes.”
While the appeals court’s ruling notes that the plaintiffs did successfully highlight some of the issues with tenure and seniority protections, the prime culprit for the concentration of ineffective teachers in poor and minority schools, the court concluded, is individual staffing decisions.
The plaintiffs’ case was originally funded by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, David Welch, and brought by the group Students Matter, a California nonprofit that aims to use “impact legislation” to improve schools. The case had cemented strong divisions between influential education-advocacy groups, becoming a veritable litmus test for competing approaches to school improvement.
The original ruling had been stayed pending the appeal, so the laws remained largely unchanged.
The decision comes just hours after a similar suit was filed in Minnesota. The plaintiffs in the Vergara case are expected to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.
For more on the Vergara case:
- Understanding the Vergara Teacher-Tenure Appeal: What You Need to Know
- Vergara Appeal Brings Out a Who’s Who in Ed. Policy
- For Vergara Ruling on Teachers, Big Questions Loom
- Teacher Protections Violate Student Rights, Calif. Judge Finds
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.