California court strikes down teacher tenure rules in major ruling

Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said the five California rules on teachers' protections he struck down 'impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.'

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Alex Caputo-Pearl, president elect of the United Teachers Los Angeles takes questions on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles Tuesday.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge struck down five key California rules affecting the hiring and firing of teachers Tuesday, agreeing with plaintiffs that they made it too difficult to remove ineffective teachers from public school classrooms and that children’s education suffered as a result.

If upheld, legal and education analysts say, the decision will reverberate throughout the nation’s education establishment.

Judge Rolf Treu found in Vergara v. California, a case brought by students with the support of education reform advocates and a high-power law firm, that the rules governing tenure and other teachers’ protections violated the state constitution, disproportionately affecting black and Hispanic students and cheating them of a basic education.

The laws include a tenure law that evaluates a teacher's fitness for permanent employment after only 18 months on the job, costly and lengthy procedures for dismissal, and a "last in, first out" mandate to make decisions about layoffs and reassignment solely on the basis of seniority.

With rare clarity and a forcefulness that legal analysts say bode well for likely appellate challenges, Judge Treu said the five rules “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and that they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”

Singling out the permanent employment statute, the judge said, “the evidence is compelling. Indeed it shocks the conscience.”

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed the ruling as a “mandate to fix” fundamental problems affecting the nation’s 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,” Secretary Duncan said in a statement.

He added: “This decision presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

However the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which opposed the suit, has promised to fight the ruling in court, saying the decision overlooks a bigger problem: inadequate funding.

“While this decision is not unexpected, the rhetoric and lack of a thorough, reasoned opinion is disturbing,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

“[The judge] argues, as we do, that no one should tolerate bad teachers in the classroom. He is right on that,” Ms. Weingarten said. “But in focusing on these teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, he strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice. … It’s surprising that the court, which used its bully pulpit when it came to criticizing teacher protections, did not spend one second discussing funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that are proven to affect student achievement and our children.”

Legal analysts say that because the court is relatively low in the judicial system, the final word is likely not yet decided.

“It is far from final,”says Kevin Johnson, dean of the Law School at the University of California, Davis. “The first appeal will be to the California court of appeals and then probably to the California Supreme Court. A decision of this nature by the state’s highest court would have national ripple effects. A trial court ruling does not attract similar attention and does not have similar national impacts.”

Others said the forcefulness of the ruling would carry weight in the appeals process.

“I believe that phrase, ‘shocks the conscience’ shows clearly how definitive the judge felt the evidence was,” says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. “It indicates a strong evidenciary basis for his conclusion that appeals courts will give great weight to.”

Other legal battles are likely to ensue in other states, say others.

“Judge Treu’s decision sets the stage for more challenges across the country to teacher union demands that are at odds with the requirement of equal educational opportunity,” says Michael Moreland, vice dean at the Villanova University School of Law in Pennsylvania. “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.”

Some education experts warned the public, meanwhile, of drawing the wrong conclusions from this decision. Now that some legal hurdles are out of the way, it is still necessary for parents, teachers, and communities to create workable alternatives, they say.

"I hope this decision doesn't lure the public into thinking that the job is done,” says James Stigler, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

“We still are left with a system that provides almost no feedback loops to help teachers improve their teaching and thus their students' learning. We need to focus more efforts on understanding variation in students' achievement and its causes. And who will replace the teachers that are fired? Unless the working conditions in schools can be improved, it is unlikely that we will attract our brightest young people in to the profession of teaching.”

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