California Teacher Tenure Ruled Unconstitutional

Jun 10, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 5:31 pm

A California judge today ruled the state's laws governing teacher tenure and the firing of public school teachers unconstitutional, saying they interfere with the state's obligation to provide every child with access to a good education.

The plaintiffs in the case, Vergara v. California, argued that the tenure system for public school teachers in California verges on the absurd, and that those laws disproportionately harm poor and minority students. In his ruling, Judge Rolf M. Treu agreed.

"Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students," Judge Treu wrote. "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience."

The suit was filed in 2012 by a nonprofit group, Students Matter, on behalf of nine public school students. The group was founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and charter school advocate David Welch. Welch today challenged the defendants to now "join together ... to offer real solutions for our education system."

The lawsuit challenged elements of the state's education code, including those governing tenure, seniority, layoffs and firings.

"This is a monumental day for California's public education system," Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "Today's ruling is a victory not only for our nine plaintiffs; it is a victory for students, parents, and teachers across California."

The California Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union with 325,000 members, along with the California Federation of Teachers, had joined the state in defending the case. The CTA vowed to appeal the ruling, and the judge ordered a stay of his decision pending an appeal.

The unions argued that the lawsuit unfairly blames teachers for problems in the public schools that stem from much larger social and political forces, including poverty, inequality and racial segregation.

"We believe the judge in this case did not take into consideration the overwhelming amount of evidence that show that these statutes work very well all over the state in well-run school districts," said Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association. "It's another example of the 'blame teachers first' approach to solving complex education problems."

The ruling was "deeply flawed," Dennis Van Roekel, the head of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, said in a statement. "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."

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also issued a statement. "My hope is that today's decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift," Duncan said. "Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation."

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Teacher tenure laws and seniority policies undermine the rights of students in California to get a good education - that was the ruling today from a Superior Court Judge in Los Angeles, and it was a big blow for public school teachers and their unions. The judge ruled that policies for how teachers are hired and dismissed are unconstitutional. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The plaintiffs in Vergara v. California argue that the tenure system for public school teachers in California verges on the absurd. In his closing argument a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Marcellus McRae, noted that some were granted tenure before they even complete their two-year teacher credential program.

MARCELLUS MCRAE: That's like telling somebody we're going to go ahead and let you get out on the highway and endanger everybody else's lives for about two months, and then we're going to tell you that you failed your driver's test. What kind of sense does that make? It makes no sense.

WESTERVELT: McRae and other lawyers argued successfully that the dysfunction in California's tenure and dismissal system is so bad it undermines student achievement and educational equity, and therefore, violates the state constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

Today, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed. He wrote that the plaintiffs show that the challenged statutes impose a real and appreciable impact on students' fundamental right to equality of education. And he added, they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.

He said the evidence shocks the conscience, noting one study which showed that one year and one class with a grossly ineffective teacher cost students nearly one and a half million dollars in lifetime earnings. If the state loses on appeal, it would be up to the California Legislature to replace the overturn statutes.

The nonprofit group that brought the case, Students Matter, was founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and charter school advocate David Welch. Today, Welch challenged the defendants to join together to offer real solutions for our education system. But the California Teachers Association and its parent union, the NEA, called the ruling deeply flawed. They vowed to appeal. Frank Wells is with the CTA.

FRANK WELLS: It's a strongly worded ruling, but it's not supported by a strong body of evidence. This is another example of the blame teachers first approach to solving complex education problems.

WESTERVELT: The unions argue the lawsuit unfairly blames teachers for education inequities resulting from poverty, economic inequality and racial segregation. The group, Students Matter, meantime says it will look to file similar lawsuits in other states.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.