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Just in: Vergara appeal filed to California Supreme Court

Mike Szymanski | May 24, 2016

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Theodore Boutrous Jr. and students he is representing in the Vergara case.

Attorneys representing the students in Vergara v. California filed a petition Tuesday to take the case to the California Supreme Court. Last month the Court of Appeal overturned a Los Angeles Supreme Court ruling in the case, which challenges teacher tenure, layoff laws and dismissal policies.

“The Court of Appeal flatly got it wrong,” said Josh Lipshutz, one of the attorneys for the students who claimed they were wrongfully discriminated against by being assigned ineffective teachers because they lived in low-income areas. “This is extremely important to the California education system and the children of the state, and we hope the California Supreme Court will see the merits of our petition.”

The state supreme court has 60 days from the date of filing to make a decision if they will hear the case, plus the option of a 30-day extension, Lipshutz said. Both sides then could state their case before the full court in San Francisco.

Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., the lead counsel for the students, said the state supreme court has a history of reviewing cases involving education so he thinks it is likely the court will hear their appeal. “Time and time again, the court has intervened when the state’s laws and policies deprive our children, particularly our most vulnerable children, of their constitutional rights. The laws at issue in Vergara harm thousands of California students every year and are disastrous for low-income and minority communities,” Boutrous said in an email.

Boutrous said he wants the California Supreme Court to find the teacher tenure laws unconstitutional and restore the decision of the trial court made by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu in June 2014.

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said about the appeal, “We are disappointed but not surprised that they are continuing to spend large sums of money on the suit and the PR campaign attached to it smearing teachers and public education.”

Pechthalt said in a statement, “No connection was ever made between the challenged laws and any student being harmed or any teacher who should not be in a classroom remaining there. We are confident that the Supreme Court will agree with the Appeal Court ruling. It is past time to focus our attention on the real issues that confront public education in California and then work collaboratively on solutions that we know work. That begins with adequate resources and policies that support smaller class sizes, strengthen peer assistance and review, reinforce positive collaborative district practices, and address the looming teacher shortage.”

Meanwhile, Students Matter, a nonprofit sponsor of the Vergara lawsuit, announced its support of a state bill that they say “takes positive steps forward in addressing the harmful California teacher employment policies” that were identified in the lawsuit.

California Assembly member Susan Bonilla’s AB 934 addresses tenure, dismissal, evaluations and the Last In, First Out method of lay-offs that the bill says discriminates against minority neighborhoods.

“The bill as introduced represents a strong and critical step forward in supporting effective teachers across California and ensuring that every public school student has access to the great teaching and quality education that he or she deserves,” said Ben Austin, policy director of Students Matter, in an emailed statement.

“California students filed Vergara v. California recognizing that there have always been two paths to fix the state’s broken Education Code: the legal route through the courts and the legislative route through Sacramento,” Austin added. “Twice, California courts have examined the overwhelming evidence presented during the Vergara trial, and twice, these courts have found that a broken teacher employment system imposes serious and long-lasting harms on both teachers and their students.”

Austin delineated areas where the bill could be strengthened based on current research, testimony from trial and best practices. He sent a letter to Bonilla’s office explaining how to beef up the specifics of the bill.

Austin added, “Because of the mountains of evidence presented in court and the high-profile discussion sparked by the trial, a chorus of teachers, parents, students, administrators, California’s editorial boards and community leaders have now called for real and meaningful change — and it is time for Sacramento to listen.”

Mike Stryer, senior executive director of Teach Plus California, which also endorsed the bill, said in a statement, “Assembly Bill 934 is unambiguously good for kids in California. The bill establishes a differentiated teacher evaluation rating system, and ensures that there are appropriate programs and mechanisms to support teachers.”

Stryer also noted changes that could be made to the bill. “While the bill still could be strengthened by providing greater transparency around equitable distribution of effective teachers, the legislation makes key advances in helping realize a future where every student has equal access to strong schools. We are grateful to Assemblywoman Bonilla for introducing this bill and encourage all members of the California Legislature to support it,” he said in the statement.

Teach Plus stated that a 2015 poll of more than 500 California teachers, the majority wanted teachers to demonstrate effectiveness for a minimum of five years in order to earn tenure. A Teach Plus poll this year of more than 500 principals found that nearly three out of four principals have had to lay off teachers that they would have preferred to keep because of seniority.

“This bill is a very important step forward for California’s children,” said former Congressman and current Teach Plus Board member George Miller in a statement. “I hope it becomes law because it will bring us closer to the day that every student in California has the great teacher they deserve.”

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