It was a national headline making decision issued by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu, whose ruling overturned five state statutes giving California teachers firing protections and rights to tenure and seniority.
The suit, Vergara v. California, was filed by Students Matter, and backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch. Students Matter is supported by Michelle Rhee and Students First, Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin, billionaire and school privatizer Eli Broad, former lawmaker Gloria Romero, and other corporate education reformers.
Plaintiffs are nine California public school students “who challenge five statutes of the California Education Code, claiming said statutes violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.”
Plaintiffs claim that “the Challenged Statutes result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominately low-income and minority students. Plaintiffs’ equal protection claims assert that the Challenged Statutes violate their fundamental rights to equality of education by adversely affecting the quality of the education they are afforded by the state.”
The suit challenges California statutes governing due process in teacher dismissals, using experience as a criteria during school layoffs, and the two-year probationary period for teachers.
While there is no doubt this case will become critical in the coming years, it is important to remember that the verdict is simply one by a superior court judge.
The California Teachers Association (CTA) quickly put out a statement calling the ruling “deeply flawed” and vowing that CTA, CFT (California Federation of Teachers) and the state of California will appeal.
“We will appeal on behalf of students and educators. Circumventing the legislative process to strip teachers of their professional rights hurts our students and our schools,” the statement read. “This lawsuit has nothing to do with what’s best for kids, but was manufactured by a Silicon Valley millionaire and a corporate PR firm to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on our schools. Today’s ruling would make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms and ignores all research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching.”
Judge Treu (pronounced Troy) writes, “This Court is asked to directly assess how the Challenged Statutes affect the educational experience. It must decide whether the Challenged Statutes cause the potential and/or unreasonable exposure of grossly ineffective teachers to all California students in general and to minority and/or low income students in particular, in violation of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.”
He writes, “This Court finds that Plaintiffs have met their burden of proof on all issues presented.”
He states, “Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”
He continued, “Based on a massive study, Dr. Chetty testified that a single year in a classroom with a grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom. Based on a 4 year study, Dr. Kane testified that students in LAUSD who are taught by a teacher in the bottom 5% of competence lose 9.54 months of learning in a single year compared to students with average teachers.”
He adds, “There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms. Berliner, an expert called by State Defendants, testified that 1-3% of teachers in California are grossly ineffective. Given that the evidence showed roughly 275,000 active teachers in this state, the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.”
In his conclusion he exhorts the legislature to write legislation “providing each child in this state with a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education.”
The CTA responds, “From the beginning, this lawsuit has highlighted the wrong problems, proposed the wrong solutions, and followed the wrong process. This lawsuit was not about helping students, but yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on California public schools and students.”
They argue, “Circumventing the legislative process to strip teachers of their due process rights will not improve student learning, will make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms, and ignores all the research that shows experience is a key factor in effective teaching.”
They add, “California’s due process in performance-based dismissal cases helps ensure teachers are not fired for speaking out on behalf of students, or for teaching subjects some find controversial. They allow teachers facing dismissal to present their side of a case, and to have their case heard by objective third parties.”
“The legislature is the place for policy decisions like this, not through court cases brought by phony front groups created by PR firms and millionaires,” the CTA writes. “This week in Sacramento, lawmakers are working together to pass a bill that would streamline the dismissal process to keep students safe, while protecting the due process rights of educators. AB 215 was unanimously approved by the state Senate and is expected to be approved by the Assembly and signed by the governor. The bill prioritizes, updates and streamlines the teacher discipline and dismissal process.”
The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes this morning, “California’s extraordinary protections for public school teachers were dealt a heavy blow Tuesday when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that the state’s tenure laws unconstitutionally deprive students of an adequate education.”
The Times continues, “To this extent, the judge’s opinion was absolutely correct: The tenure laws are bad policy. In almost no other field of work is it remotely as hard to fire someone for incompetence, or for not doing the job at all. Lawmakers have been far too deferential to the powerful California Teachers Assn. over the years, and now they have been given a strong prod to change their ways.”
However, the Times questions the ruling on the basis of its constitutionality claims.
They write, “What Treu’s ruling leaves less clear is why these policies, problematic as they are, represent an unconstitutional barrier to a decent education. Treu quotes one witness as saying that perhaps 1% to 3% of teachers are grossly ineffective. Those numbers don’t indicate that such teachers are the key factor in the state’s achievement woes.”
Likewise the Bee editorial board indicated, “The tentative ruling could reshape public education in California.” They add, “Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a leap toward a new era of educational glory – which is our view – or a stumble down the dark road to a dystopian future in which corporations run the world.”
They continue, “The state, joined by the California Teachers Association, no doubt will appeal. It surely will be ammunition in the November runoff between union-supported Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Marshall Tuck, who is supported by charter schools and wealthy people, so-called reformers in the union’s vernacular.”
“The larger struggle continues between unions and the reformers for control of public schools,” the Bee writes. “It was apt that the judge ended his ruling with a call to the Legislature. Regardless of the court outcome, the Legislature must craft new rules that give students and teachers equal consideration in state law.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting