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State supreme court could decide today whether to take up Vergara teacher tenure case

Sarah Favot | August 17, 2016

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Press conference after Vergara ruling LAUSD

The California Supreme Court’s decision on whether to take up Vergara v. California, a landmark ruling that challenged teacher tenure and declared some school employment laws unconstitutional, could come as early as this afternoon. Today is the court’s last scheduled conference before the Monday deadline to say whether it will review an appellate court’s ruling in the case.

The plaintiffs, a group of nine California public school students represented by StudentsMatter, asked the state Supreme Court to review the appellate court ruling in May.

• Hear audio highlights from the Vergara appeals hearing.  

• Read previous Vergara coverage from LA School Report, which covered the 2014 trial.

The lawsuit has captured the attention of the nation and ignited a debate about teacher tenure laws and job protections that make it difficult to fire tenured teachers. It has fiercely divided education reformers and teachers’ unions.

In an April 14 decision, a three-judge appellate panel said it found the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California didn’t present enough evidence to show that minority students were more often subjected to ineffective teachers than other students. It unanimously reversed the lower court ruling.

“Plaintiffs elected not to target local administrative decisions and instead opted to challenge the statutes themselves,” the decision states. “This was a heavy burden and one plaintiffs did not carry. The trial court’s judgment declaring the statutes unconstitutional, therefore, cannot be affirmed.”

California’s teachers unions characterized that ruling as a “win.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that giving administrators the power to fire bad teachers more quickly would improve student achievement, especially for students of color. They argued the laws that make it difficult to fire teachers and allowed ineffective teachers to remain in classrooms — teaching mainly minority and poor students — and harmed student learning.

The judges acknowledged many problems in the school system, but couldn’t find the laws themselves to be unconstitutional.

“In sum, the evidence presented at trial highlighted likely drawbacks to the current tenure, dismissal and layoff statutes, but it did not demonstrate a facial constitutional violation. The evidence also revealed deplorable staffing decisions being made by some local administrators that have a deleterious impact on poor and minority students in California’s public schools. The evidence did not show that the challenged statutes inevitably cause this impact.”

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs sued the State of California and several state officials, seeking a court order declaring various parts of state’s Education Code unconstitutional. After an eight-week trial in 2014 with more than 50 witnesses, LA County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled in favor of the students. The state quickly filed an appeal.

Similar lawsuits have been subsequently filed in Minnesota and New York.

State lawmakers have been unsuccessful in attempting to make changes to teacher tenure laws at the legislative level. The California Teachers Association is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Sacramento.

Most recently, a bill that would have extended the probationary period for new teachers from two to three years, among other changes, was defeated in June by the Senate Education Committee, even after the bill became so watered down that initial backers revoked their support.

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