Teaching Profession

Calif. Unions Appeal ‘Deeply Flawed’ Vergara Ruling

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 13, 2015 2 min read
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California’s teachers’ unions have filed their opening brief in their appeal of the ruling in Vergara v. California, launching the next salvo in the ongoing battle over teacher quality in the Golden State.

Last fall, a district court judge overturned sections of state law dealing with teacher tenure, due process, and layoffs, stating that they infringed on poor and minority students’ constitutional right to an equitable education. The action was subsequently stayed pending an appeal.

Now, we’re starting to see the outline of the legal strategy the unions will be using to make their case.

In their filing, the unions argue that the judge’s 16-paged decision was “perfunctory” and that the plaintiffs didn’t show that the statutes in question cause direct harm to students.

“There was no evidence that any of the challenged statutes, alone or in combination, was the direct and unattenuated cause of any particular student being assigned to any particular teacher, ‘grossly ineffective’ or otherwise,” according to the brief.

Most of the evidence brought by the plaintiffs was anecdotal, the unions argue. Finally, the laws don’t set out to discriminate against any particular class of students, since they apply uniformly to all, they contend.

The unions further state that, even if those arguments aren’t enough, the earlier ruling has been rendered essentially moot because of a law passed shortly after the verdict. That measure, which the unions supported, reduced the time period for due-process hearings and created a streamlined process for teachers found guilty of “egregious misconduct,” a category distinct from being fired for performance or unprofessional behavior.

It’s interesting and instructive to see how the unions’ legal arguments differ from the on-the-ground stances they’ve historically taken on some of these topics. Case in point: The unions note that state law gives districts the opportunity to skip seniority during layoffs if a junior teacher has “special training or experience” to show that it contains plenty of flexibility for districts. They cite the example of the Sacramento district, among others, which did hold onto some junior teachers in 2011. What’s noticeably absent from the discussion is the small detail that the Sacramento affiliate of the CTA sued the district when it decided to deviate from the seniority list.

Meanwhile, there are a whole host of new legislative proposals going on in the state that could potentially impact the lawsuit. Nobody is better at keeping on top of this than EdSource’s John Fensterwald, who has a great rundown for you. The main debate: Whether to make the measures used for evaluating teachers subject to collective bargaining, rather than being set by state law.

Photo: The Vergara plaintiffs and their attorneys speak at a press conference in Los Angeles’ Grand Park.—Stephen Sawchuk/Education Week

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