In victory for teacher unions, California's high court upholds tenure

The decision came more than two years after education reform groups sued the state on behalf of nine students. 

Nick Ut/AP/File
Attorneys Theodore Boutrous (far r.) and Marcellus McRae, (2nd from r.), take questions from the media, as they are joined by nine California public school students who are suing the state to abolish its laws on teacher tenure, seniority and other protections, during a news 2014 conference. The California Supreme Court on Monday upheld a ruling that protected the state's tenure laws for public school teachers.

The California Supreme Court on Monday upheld a ruling that protected the state's tenure laws for public school teachers, marking a victory for unions.

The decision dealt a blow to education reform groups that sued on behalf of nine students, arguing teacher tenure put poor and minority students at a disproportionately greater risk of being taught by less effective instructors.

A ruling by the state's Second Appellate District in April overturned a lower court ruling that sided with the plaintiffs in the case, known as Vergara v. California.

The California Supreme Court on Monday denied a review of the appeal without explanation. Justice Goodwin Liu was one of three judges who disagreed with that decision.

"As the state's highest court, we owe the plaintiffs in this case, as well as schoolchildren throughout California, our transparent and reasoned judgment on whether the challenged statutes deprive a significant subset of students of their fundamental right to education and violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws," Liu wrote.

The case comes at a time of bitter political wrangling over how best to improve a U.S. public school system that leaves many children lagging behind students in countries such as Finland and South Korea.

The original decision in June 2014 that struck down tenure drew national attention. Then-U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed it as a "mandate" to fix problems in public schools, while some education reformers and newspaper editorialists joined in cheering the ruling.

But teachers unions denounced the decision, and California Attorney General Kamala Harris appealed with the backing of Governor Jerry Brown. Both are Democrats.

California Federation of Teachers President Joshua Pechthalt applauded Monday's ruling, saying: "We can now turn closer attention to solving the actual problems we confront in our schools," highlighting inadequate funding and large class sizes.

The American Federation of Teachers says it hopes the California Supreme Court's decision upholding the state's teacher tenure law closes the book on the flawed argument linking educators' workplace protections with student disadvantage.

Attorneys for Students Matter, the school reform group that backed the lawsuit, argued the state's teacher tenure law makes dismissing teachers prohibitively costly and allows school districts to transfer bad teachers to low-income and predominantly minority campuses.

"The California Supreme Court has unfortunately declined to review Vergara v. California. But these issues aren't going away, and we're not done fighting for a public education system that gives all students the opportunity to learn and succeed," the group said in a statement after the ruling.

A representative for students who challenged the tenure law, meanwhile, says he hopes the state legislature will rewrite education laws with students' best interests in mind.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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