CA appeals court reverses landmark ruling that upended teacher tenure

In national news with profound statewide reverberations, a California appeals court reversed the controversial decision handed down two years ago in Vergara v. the State of California and the California Teachers Association.

“At issue were five state laws that established layoff procedures based on seniority, laid out dismissal procedures and awarded teachers permanent status, known as tenure, after two years on the job,” as EdSource recalled.

Although teachers unions hailed the reversal, an appeal was all but certain, keeping California’s beleaguered education system in uncertain waters for possibly years to come.

The court rejected Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu’s holding that California’s teacher job protections “deprive poor and minority students of a quality education or violate their civil rights,” as the New York Times reported, “reversing a landmark lower court decision that had overturned the state’s teacher tenure rules.”

“In reversing the trial court’s decision, a panel of three appeals judges wrote that if ineffective teachers are in place, the statutes themselves were not to blame because it was school and district administrators who ‘determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach.’ The laws themselves, the judges wrote, do not instruct districts in where to place teachers.”

Justice Roger Boren, writing for the court, concluded that the Vergara plaintiffs “ultimately failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students,” as Southern California Public Radio observed. “Administrators — not the statutes — ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach,” he went on. “It is clear that the challenged statutes here, by only their text, do not inevitably cause poor and minority students to receive an unequal, deficient education.”

Uncertain futures

The ruling immediately threw into question the fate of pending litigation around the country. “Parties on both sides viewed the Vergara decision as a bellwether for the nation,” the Los Angeles Times noted. “Similar litigation was filed soon after in New York; and on Thursday, just before the release of the appellate decision in California, another lawsuit was filed in Minnesota.”

“The case was being closely watched across the country by those who argue that allowing administrators to more easily fire bad teachers would improve schools and student performance. Right now, there are a series of job protections that can be invoked before school districts can remove a tenured teacher.”

Battle lines harden

Teachers unions and their supporters rushed to applaud the ruling, which spared them a politically dangerous humiliation; as the Sacramento Bee recalled, until Vergara, they had “easily batted back legislative challenges from groups seeking to overhaul the public education system by eliminating tenure and adding test scores to teacher evaluations.” As the Los Angeles Times noted, “union critics turned to the courts because teachers — ranking among the state’s most powerful interest groups — have been able to block substantial revisions to laws that protect them.”

“From the start, many Vergara supporters saw victory as a long shot but reasoned that the effort at least would keep teacher unions and their allies on the defensive — and call attention to parts of the system they wanted to change.”

But officials in the state GOP also spoke out fast, showing little concern that their political momentum had truly been blunted. Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley, expressed hope that the case rose quickly to the state Supreme Court. “Although I disagree with the court ruling, I know the fight to better our children’s education doesn’t end here,” he said in a statement. “Our children have a civil right to a quality education, and it is disappointing to see that the appeals court doesn’t agree.”

“Although this ruling is a disappointing win for the failing status quo in California, I am committed to continuing the fight to provide every child — regardless of background or zipcode — with a top-quality education that will set them up for success in the classroom, in the workplace, and in life,” said Education Committee vice-chair Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, in a statement.

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