Just in: Landmark Vergara ruling is overturned
Mike Szymanski | April 14, 2016
The California Court of Appeal on Thursday overturned a lower court ruling that had challenged teacher tenure and declared school employment laws unconstitutional.
The nine student plaintiffs intend to appeal the ruling to the California Supreme Court, according to a statement from StudentsMatter, a group representing the students.
The three-judge panel unanimously reversed Vergara v. California, finding that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that minority students were more often subjected to ineffective teachers than other students.
“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.”
The judges acknowledged many problems in the school system, but couldn’t find it 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.”
This has been one of the most-watched decisions in public education. If Judge Rolf M. Treu‘s 2014 ruling had been affirmed, it could have up-ended teachers unions and laws the school districts have followed.
• Hear audio highlights from the Vergara appeals hearing.
• Read previous Vergara coverage from LA School Report, which covered the 2014 trial.
In the lawsuit, nine students who were attending California public schools sued the State of California and several state officials, seeking a court order declaring various parts of California’s Education Code unconstitutional. After an eight-week trial and more than 50 witnesses, the judge ruled in favor of the students.
The appeals court heard arguments and asked questions on Feb. 25 in downtown LA and had until the end of May to issue a ruling.
The judges wrote: “We reverse the trial court’s decision. Plaintiffs failed to establish that the challenged statutes violate equal protection, primarily because they did not show that the statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students. Although the statutes may lead to the hiring and retention of more ineffective teachers than a hypothetical alternative system would, the statutes do not address the assignment of teachers; instead, administrators—not the statutes—ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach.”
The judges said it was not shown that any certain group was more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students. “With no proper showing of a constitutional violation, the court is without power to strike down the challenged statutes. The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea.’”
The case involved three school districts by name, LA Unified, Oakland Unified School District and Alum Rock Union, and the judges specifically mentioned former LA Superintendent John Deasy when discussing the amount of time it takes to re-evaluate a teacher on probation: “One witness, John Deasy, then-superintendent of LAUSD, testified that there is ‘no way’ the time provided by the statute is ‘a sufficient amount of time to make . . . that incredibly important judgment’ of reelection.”
The lead attorney for the students, Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., issued a statement saying, “We came to court to defend the rights of California’s public school students and will continue to do so, despite today’s temporary setback. The Court of Appeal’s decision mistakenly blames local school districts for the egregious constitutional violations students are suffering each and every day, but the mountain of evidence we put on at trial proved—beyond any reasonable dispute—that the irrational, arbitrary, and abominable laws at issue in this case shackle school districts and impose severe and irreparable harm on students. We are disappointed by the Court of Appeal’s decision today, but expect that the California Supreme Court will have the final say.”
Eric C. Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, said in a statement: “Today’s ruling reversing Treu’s decision overwhelmingly underscores that the laws under attack have been good for public education and good for kids and that the plaintiffs failed to establish any violation of a student’s constitutional rights. Stripping teachers of their ability to stand up for their students and robbing school districts of the tools they need to make sound employment decisions was a wrong-headed scheme developed by people with no education expertise and the appellate court justices saw that.”
Dave Welch, the founder of Students Matter, wrote in a statement, “I just got off the phone with our attorneys, and I’m not going to mince words — we lost. This is a sad day for every child struggling to get the quality education he or she deserves — and is guaranteed by our state constitution.
“Every student deserves a great public education; yet California’s education laws make this impossible,” Welch said.
In a statement, Teach Plus pointed to “a great urgency for the California Legislature to act.”
Former Congressman and current Teach Plus board member George Miller said in that statement, “For poor and minority children, there’s a real urgency that the state address inequities of LIFO, tenure, and dismissal policies. I look forward to the appeal but the legislature shouldn’t wait.”
Shannon Haber from the LA Unified communications office said that Superintendent Michelle King will not release a comment about the ruling, but specific board members may issue statements.
More to come.