Teaching Profession

Understanding the Vergara Teacher-Tenure Appeal: What You Need to Know

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 24, 2016 6 min read
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In my 11 years covering education and teachers, nothing has even come close to generating the level of sheer angst, anger, and high-pitched PR battles that have accompanied Vergara v. California, a case challenging nearly every aspect of California’s teacher tenure rules.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a handful of California students, who argued that the state’s laws on teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoffs violated their right to an equitable education under the state constitution.

In June of 2014, after a month-long bench trial, Superior Court judge Rolf M. Treu ruled for the students and overturned the laws. In a now-famous rhetorical flourish, he said that the effect of the laws on students “shocks the conscience.”

The state and its teachers’ unions appealed, and on Feb. 25 will get their chance to make their case at the California Court of Appeals.

Here’s everything you need to know about the case, and the next stage in the litigation.

What were the plaintiffs’ arguments in Vergara v. California? Who are the supporters?

First, the plaintiffs argued that the two-year period for granting teachers tenure (which means they get the right to a due process hearing before being fired) is too short in which to ascertain a teacher’s effectiveness. In addition, they charged that the actual dismissal hearing, which occurs before a three-member panel and permits various appeals, takes too much time and costs so much that districts don’t really try to dismiss poorly performing teachers. Finally, they contended, teacher layoffs are done by strict reverse-seniority rules rather than by whether teachers are any good at their jobs.

In concert, these rules mean that schools with large populations of poor and minority students tend to get lower-quality teachers, depriving them of their right to an equal education, the plantiffs argued.

The plaintiffs relied heavily on research based on value-added measures—an econometric method of estimating teacher effectiveness from student test scores. Those studies show that students taught by teachers with a track record of boosting scores have better lifetime earnings and outcomes, and that the reverse holds true, too.

The case was 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. Its donors are unknown.

And who were the defendants? What did they argue?

The state’s two major teachers’ unions, the Calfornia Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, “intervenors” in the lawsuit, argued that nothing in the state laws prevent districts from enforcing teacher dismissal appropriately. Moreover, they said there’s no clear line between the challenged laws and where teachers are placed, nor could the student plaintiffs prove that they had ineffective teachers as a result.

The state, similarly, argued that the laws were necessary to recruit and retain teachers, and to keep a stable working force by preventing, for example, administrators from targeting higher-paid teachers during layoffs.

Regarding layoffs, more senior teachers are generally more effective than novices, the defendants said, so the state’s layoff procedures make sense. They also attacked value-added measures as flawed and unreliable. (There’s actually a big difference between using value-added for research purposes and using it for individual teachers’ evaluations; this distinction got a bit murky during the trial.)

The teachers’ unions, in particular, framed the case as an attack by well-heeled “reformers” who are trying to silence teachers’ voices and weaken unions.

Where do education advocates stand on this lawsuit?

Everyone and their brother has filed amicus briefs on both sides of the issue, from state school chiefs and district superintendents, to charter school advocates, to civil rights groups, to education scholars and economists who study teachers.

Notably, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got himself in hot water with a statement in which he appeared to support the ruling, which ultimately led the National Education Association to call for his resignation.

All in all, there are a lot of agendas at work here. Some supporters of this lawsuit have long argued that teachers’ unions hurt students and have a stranglehold on policy. But at the same time, there are other proponents, like the Education Trust, who support the rights of teachers to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.

Conversely, there are other individuals, including some law experts, who are sympathetic with the complaints about the California rules, but think that the legal arguments underpinning the case are shaky.

What were the Vergara ruling’s effects?

In California, nothing happened, actually. That’s because the court stayed the ruling from taking effect as the appeals cranked through the legal system. That means that, right now, all of the original laws remain in effect.

But two copycat lawsuits were filed in New York and were later combined into one, and there have been murmurings of other such suits elsewhere. It’s not clear whether these suits will be as successful, since the constitutional rights afforded to students are different in each state.

What will happen during the appeal?

The appeals process is designed to determine whether the trial court reached an appropriate conclusion based on the evidence, not to adjudicate what came out during the original trial. So, although there will certainly be echoes of the original arguments on appeal, expect more analysis of the underlying legal reasoning.

Has the state done anything to address these laws in the meantime?

There was an opening following the ruling for state lawmakers to try to find a middle ground that preserved tenure, but addressed some of the plaintiffs’ concerns.

California did pass a law that created an expedited dismissal process for teachers accused of “egregious misconduct,” such as sexual abuse of students. It also was supposed to speed up regular dismissals.

Here’s the catch: The state doesn’t track which process was used to fire a teacher—just the outcomes.

The overall number of dismissal cases reported by school districts and county offices declined from 731 in 2013-14 to 636 in 2014-15, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, so it’s unlikely that the legislation has done much to increase the total number.

Also, because that body only tracks outcomes and not timelines, it’s impossible to say whether the bill has reduced the average time for a case. Frustratingly, almost everything we know about the timeline for dismissing a teacher in California remains anecdotal.

The legislature hasn’t made any major changes to how teachers are evaluated, to layoff procedures, or to the timeline for granting tenure, which still stands at two years.

What happens if the Vergara defendants win on appeal? What happens if the appeals court upholds the ruling?

In either case, the losing party will probably appeal to the state supreme court.

Photo: Attorney Glenn Rothner, one of the attorneys who represented teachers’ unions, speaks during a press conference in Los Angeles on June 10, 2014, after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that key job protections for California teachers violate the state’s constitution.

--Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/MCT

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