Teaching Profession

Contours of Calif. Teacher-Protection Suit Take Shape

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 28, 2014 4 min read
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Los Angeles

In opening statements, the contours of the legal arguments that will drive Vergara v. California—a suit that seeks to overturn major elements of teachers’ seniority and tenure protections in the Golden State—gradually began to emerge.

Much of the statements were strictly by the books, with the plaintiffs arguing the laws in question put poor and minority children at a higher risk of receiving subpar instruction than their peers, and attorneys for the defense saying they bolster teacher quality.

“These statutes work together in a kind of vicious cycle. The system hurts students every day,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Theodore Boutrous in opening statements.

Defense attorneys representing the state of California and the teachers’ unions argued that the laws do not force districts to assign poor teachers to at-risk students; instead, they actually serve to keep the best teachers in the profession.

Take the issue of teacher tenure, granted in California after just two years (or 16 months, argued plaintiffs, when you consider summers off and notifications to teachers due each March).

“Tenure is an amenity, just like salary and vacation, that allows districts to recruit and retain teachers despite harder working conditions, pay that hasn’t kept pace, and larger classes sizes,” said James Finberg, an attorney for the teachers’ unions, which intervened on behalf of the defendants.

Then consider the plaintiffs’ star witness of the day, Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy. He testifed that two years was an inadequate probationary period before due process kicks in, making it more challenging to dismiss teachers.

“There is no way that this is a sufficient amount of time to make, in my opinion, that critical judgment. You don’t make it on even two years of instruction ... you don’t have, in my opinion, a reasonable time to grow,” Deasy said. “You make the decision before the person completes the [state required] system of support in place.”

Deasy also testified that the cost of dismissing a tenured teacher in the state averages between $250,000 and $450,000 when appeals are taken into account.

And asked point-blank whether the Los Angeles district is able to dismiss all its ineffective teachers, he said: “No, it’s not.”

Here’s a rundown of some of the other issues that caught the attention of my little gray cells.

Legal standing: Vergara v. California is not a class-action suit. In interviews, attorneys for the plaintiffs said that the nine K-12 students have the right to bring the suit because they are at greater risk of being harmed by poor teaching.

But attorneys for both the defendants and the intervenors (the state’s two teachers’ unions) argued that these nine students don’t have standing to bring the suit because none of them can show they’ve been the victim of bad teaching. One of the students has acknowledged getting all good teachers, Finberg said; six others aren’t truly economically disadvantaged; and two now attend charters.

Whose responsibility?: Much of the case appears to hinge on whether the laws themselves deny the plaintiffs’ equal-protection rights, or whether it is their implementation by districts that is problematic, as the defense plans to argue. This issue was the impetus behind one of the day’s most interesting developments. Though generally fairly reserved, Judge Rolf M. Treu interrupted one of the opening statements to press on this matter.

Nimrod Elias, a defense attorney for the state, was laying out how his team will call administrators from “well-managed” districts who did not find the state’s laws on tenure, seniority, and due process to impede their ability to dismiss poor teachers. But Treu seemed a bit skeptical.

“You mentioned on several occasions, ‘well run, well managed’ districts,” he said to Elias. “How can parents compel a district to be well-managed and well-run?”

There was also a distinctly strange moment when attorneys for the teachers’ unions named Deasy, who has made it harder to earn tenure, as an ostensible example of good management: The Los Angeles teachers’ union, an affiliate of both of the state unions, has repeatedly fought Deasy over this tougher approach.

Who’s effective, anyway?: One of the witnesses who will be called by plaintiffs, Bhavini Bhakta, was a Monrovia, Calif., teacher who was laid off in 2009 under reverse-seniority provisions—the same year she won a “Golden Apple” Teacher of the Year award. Conversely, defendants noted that one of the teachers named ineffective by the plaintiffs, Christine McLaughlin, won a Teacher of the Year award last year in Los Angeles County.

Value-added is on trial: Concerned as the case is is with the definition of effective and ineffective teachers, it was all but inevitable that the trial would bring to the fore the issue of value-added measures, which use test-score algorithms to quantify the learning each teacher produces in his or her students. Based on the defense attorneys’ opening statement, the state plans to question the validity of value-added as a gauge of teacher quality, saying that it is “methodologically flawed” and “limited in what it purports to show.”

(As I reported yesterday, other researchers will use studies based on value-added methods to highlight the importance of teacher quality.)

What’s the future of tenure? Plaintiffs made a big deal of the fact that nearly every other state doesn’t grant teachers tenure until they’ve taught for at least three years. But if they succeed in overturning the law, the defense attorneys countered, tenure won’t be lengthened—it will disappear until (or unless) the Legislature steps in the fill the gap.

Photo: Raylene Monterroza, one of the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, just sees over the podium as she addresses the media at a press briefing held Monday on the first day of the trial in Los Angeles. --Nancy Pastor for Education Week

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