Teaching Profession

Reactions to Vergara Reversal Point to Continuing Battles, Equity Concerns

By Emmanuel Felton — April 15, 2016 5 min read
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Nearly two years after California superior court judge Rolf M. Treu struck down five key sections of California’s job-protection laws for teachers—a ruling that has spawned copycat lawsuits in other states—an appeals court in Los Angeles yesterday completely overturned his verdict.

In a unanimous decision the three-judge panel ruled that Treu had erred in finding that the challenged provisions—which grant teachers’ due process rights, establish the time framework for schools to make tenure decisions at 18 months, and require school districts to lay off teachers based on seniority—were the root cause of the troubling pattern of poor and minority students being more likely to get taught by ineffective teachers.

Not surprisingly given the history of the case, the new ruling in the Vergara v. California case has been met with conflicting reactions—as well as vows on both sides to press for change.

In a statement, the California Teachers Association, declared the opinion a “stinging rebuke” to “the allegations made and millions of dollars spent by wealthy anti-union ‘education reformers’ to bypass voters, parents, and the legislature with harmful education policy changes.”

But the backers of the suit lambasted the ruling’s logic and vowed to take their fight to the state’s highest court.

“Every student deserves a great public education; yet California’s education laws make this impossible,” said David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who helped fund the suit. “Today, the courts failed to safeguard students’ constitutional rights. I hope and expect that the California Supreme Court will step in and protect the rights of millions of students across California.”

“The Court of Appeal’s decision mistakenly blames local school districts for the egregious constitutional violations students are suffering each and every day,” added Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “But the mountain of evidence we put on at trial proved—beyond any reasonable dispute—that the irrational, arbitrary, and abominable laws at issue in this case shackle school districts and impose severe and irreparable harm on students. We are disappointed by the Court of Appeal’s decision today, but expect that the California Supreme Court will have the final say.”

Other observers focused on the practical aspects of the ruling and the school-equity issues that remain at stake.

“I’m sad, not because of the decision necessarily, but I just hope that the conversation doesn’t die with it,” said Katharine Strunk, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “The research is incontrovertible, every piece of high-quality research says that the kids who need it the most aren’t being served well. It doesn’t matter if the laws are unconstitutional or not, we must tackle that head on.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten argued that the ruling places the onus on administrators to address those issues.

“When it comes to tenure and due process, these are essential protections for teachers to do their jobs, but they should never be used as a cloak for incompetence or an excuse for managers not to manage,” said Weingarten. “This is what the court ultimately found when it concluded many school districts are able to use the existing law effectively—it is not the law that is the problem, but rather the administration of the law. Here’s the simple truth: We cannot fire or sanction our way to high-quality schools. We stand ready to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work necessary for every public school to be a place where parents want to send their children, where educators want to work and where children thrive.”

Weingarten said that, moving forward, districts and states should be focusing on the “very real teacher shortage problem.”

John Rogers, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles’s education school who had supported an amicus brief opposing the original ruling, echoed that point.

“To some extent the decision puts to rest a case that was always in something of a time warp,” said Rogers. “The case arose out of a set of political dynamics that were created by the recession and budget cuts. We are in a very different political context now, as we struggle with how to deal with the teacher shortage. The critical issue is getting more people who are deeply committed and well-trained into the profession and supporting them through their careers.”

Teacher shortages, Rogers asserts, are felt hardest in schools that primarily serve poor and minority students.

“I was in Los Angeles during the late 1990s and early 2000s after the legislature decided to decrease class sizes, despite the fact that so many teachers were retiring,” said Rogers. “In south Los Angeles districts like Lynwood, Compton, and Inglewood, more than 50 percent of teachers lacked a credential. We need to find ways to address the shortage and do it equitably.”

While the case will almost certainly be appealed to the state Supreme Court, Lily Eskelsen Garcia—president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union—argued that the best solutions to these types of equity problems won’t come from the courts.

“The Vergara v. State of California lawsuit was an example of using our court system for political goals. The unanimous three-judge panel’s opinion states it clearly. The plaintiffs’ case—instead of addressing and proposing solutions to the real problems—focused on the wrong issues, proposed the wrong solutions, and used the wrong legal process,” she said in a statement. “Ensuring that every student gets a good education is a critical goal but one that can’t be solved with stripping our teachers of their rights. Today was a win for our educators, our schools and most importantly, our students.”

USC’s Strunk is less sure.

“What I’ve been saying about Vergara all along is I don’t know if it’s right for the courts to do this,” she said. “But we’ve been trying for years to fix this in the legislature and through the proposition system. If you look at polls, they consistently say that the public does not agree with tenure laws as is, but we can’t make a change in Sacramento. I hope that regardless of what happens with the Supreme Court that this will serve as a wake up call for legislatures. We need to really be thinking hard about how we staff schools.

“The research is clear,” she added. “We know providing good teachers is the most important thing we can do in schools.”

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