Teaching Profession

Calif. Supreme Court Puts an End to Vergara Saga

By Emmanuel Felton — August 22, 2016 5 min read
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Putting an end to a vanguard lawsuit that sought to overhaul California teachers’ job protections, the state’s highest court, in a split decision, declined to hear the Vergara v. California case. In April, a state appeals court overturned a lower court decision that found that California’s teacher-tenure laws deprived countless students of good teachers and thus a quality education. That appeals court decision will stand. The state’s two primary teachers’ unions issued a joint statement heralding the decision as not just a victory for teachers but also for students.

“The teacher shortage facing California has been stoked by the Vergara case, the expensive publicity machine surrounding it, and the constant attacks by so-called reformers on teachers and public education,” said Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers. “We can now turn closer attention to solving the actual problems we confront in our schools, such as securing adequate funding through Prop. 55, reducing class sizes, promoting and strengthening peer assistance and review, and reinforcing collaborative district practices with a proven record of success. These efforts will result in a more positive climate to address the teacher shortage crisis, bring young people to teaching and encourage experienced teachers to stay in the classroom.”

Today’s decision is being seen as a victory for teachers unions both in California and across the nation.

“It is now well past time that we move beyond damaging lawsuits like Vergara that demonize educators and begin to work with teachers to address the real issues caused by the massive underinvestment in public education in this country,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “The state of California, like many others, remains in the throes of a serious teacher shortage. We need to hire, support and retain the best teachers, not pit parents against educators in a pointless blame game that does nothing to help disadvantaged students pursue their dreams.”

While the 2012 case solely concerned the Golden State’s teacher-tenure laws, some of the most robust in the nation, it was widely seen as the forefront of a national movement to use the courts to bring down job protections that some in the education reform community contend keep bad teachers in the classroom. The plaintiffs in the Vergara case maintained that it was virtually impossible to get rid of bad teachers and that those vigorous protections were given to new teachers far too soon, often after they had just 18 months in the classroom. A timeline that challengers say simply doesn’t give administrators enough time to properly evaluate new educators’ teaching chops. Tenure opponents argue that this all has a disparate impact on poor and minority students, as bad teachers often land in the nation’s toughest-to-staff schools, which disproportionately serve those kids. In Vergara, plaintiffs argued that tenure laws were effectively denying those children their rights, under the state constitution, to a quality education.

As Teacher Beat has reported, Vergara’s initial success spawn copycat lawsuits like one filed by four Minnesota mothers just before Vergara was overturned on appeal in April. A similar lawsuit is still working its way through New York courts. Even if all those suits are ultimately unsuccessful, Joshua Dunn, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, argues the damage has already been done to teacher tenure.

"[E]ven if the lawsuits do not ultimately succeed, the discovery process is likely to create a public relations nightmare for unions,” wrote Dunn in a recent piece for EducationNext, a journal that contends that “bold change is needed in American K-12 education.”

“That process will allow the lawsuits’ supporters to publicize embarrassing facts about incompetent teachers protected by tenure and generate momentum for reform in the legislature,” Dunn continued. “Unions will, of course, object to the use of litigation for political purposes, but that has been the strategy of school-finance litigants for decades: use a lawsuit to pressure the legislature to cave in to your demands.”

As for California, many say the battle now moves to the state’s legislature.

“It is time for California lawmakers to focus on the inequities that rob our most vulnerable students from access to highly-effective teachers,” said Mike Stryer, Teach Plus California Senior Executive Director. “The fact that substantive legislation wasn’t addressed in the last term makes it even more incumbent on the legislature to develop sensible legislation that provides more equitable access to excellent teaching for California’s lower-income students and students of color.”

Teach Plus advocates for making job performance a more prominent factor in decisions over which teachers are fired. Under California’s current laws, decisions about which teachers are laid off during budget cuts are largely driven by seniority. In a 2014 Teach Plus poll of 500 California educators, most said that tenure determinations shouldn’t be made until teachers have at least five years on the job. That poll also found that 70 percent of educators wanted performance to be considered when there are layoffs.

While the appeals court confirmed that poor and non-white students were more likely to be taught by less competent teachers, the justices, in a 3-0 decision, blamed administrators for keeping bad teachers at those schools. The California School Boards Association, which supported the plaintiffs in Vergara, says they recognize that problem and plan to pursue a legislative fix.

“Most teachers do an outstanding job, but we must take every measure possible to ensure that underperforming teachers are not concentrated at schools where they are teaching our poorest and most vulnerable students,” said California School Boards Association president Chris Ungar. “Although poor and minority students did not get relief through the courts today, CSBA will continue to advocate for students within the current legal framework and push for changes to existing law that will provide more equitable access to high-quality instruction.”

But as Teacher Beat’s Stephen Sawchuk reported back in April, there’s little willingness in the legislature to come up with a compromise on this polarizing issue.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.