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California teacher tenure decision echoes historic Brown case

June 12, 2014 by Nicandro Iannacci


Classroom_843785861A ruling out of Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday struck down several state laws governing teacher tenure and dismissal procedures as unconstitutional. Across the political spectrum, experts agree: the fight is just beginning.

Relying in part on the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education—a case celebrating its 60th anniversary this year—Judge Rolf M. Treu found that the laws at issue “disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” thus undermining the quality of their education and violating the state constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.

He wrote that “both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one) disadvantaged” by tenure rules, and called layoff guidelines that ignore performance evaluations “unfathomable and therefore constitutionally unsupportable.”

The nine student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California were supported by Students Matter, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by tech entrepreneur David Welch.

Lead attorney Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., called the ruling “a victory for students, parents, and teachers across California.” (Boutrous also weighed in on freedom of the press and the First Amendment in a recent “We the People” podcast.)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan welcomed the decision as “a mandate” to fix the myriad of challenges facing the nation’s broken education system.

“The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students,” he said.

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, fervently disagreed.

“We believe the judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric and one of America’s finest corporate law firms that set out to scapegoat teachers for the real problems that exist in public education,” he said.

“There are real problems in our schools,” Pechthalt added, “but this decision in no way helps us move the ball forward.”

Mary Ellen Flannery, a senior writer at the National Education Association, went further.

“If the plaintiffs really wanted to make a difference for students, instead of attacking the rights of teachers, they’d consider the real problems in California public schools,” she wrote. “Since 2008, California funding to public schools has been cut nearly 14 percent … leaving teachers without adequate resources and too-large class sizes.”

The judge stayed his decision pending further appeal. For their part, teachers’ unions quickly announced plans to appeal; California state officials are considering an appeal as well.

From here, the case would move to the California Court of Appeals and then the California Supreme Court. After that, the U.S. Supreme Court could have an opportunity to render its own verdict.

Michael Moreland, vice dean at the Villanova University School of Law, told The Christian Science Monitor that the lawsuit stands a good chance of appellate success.

“The strength of Judge Treu’s opinion combined with California’s decades of expansive equal protection jurisprudence give the plaintiffs here a decent chance of winning in the California Supreme Court,” he said.

James Ryan, dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, told The Wall Street Journal that Vergara “will likely cause lawyers in other states to think about bringing similar suits.”

"This has a long way before it's over in California and it hasn't even started yet in other states," he said.

Nicandro Iannacci is a web strategist at the National Constitution Center.

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