California Appeals Court Overturns Historic 2014 Ruling on Teacher Tenure

Thursday, April 21, 2016
Judge Roger Boren (photo: CA Courts)

By Matt Reynolds, Courthouse News Service


LOS ANGELES (CN) - A state appeals court delivered California teacher unions an extraordinary victory last week, overturning a historic ruling that held the education code unconstitutionally rewards chronically incompetent teachers with tenure.


An advocacy group for the nine students who filed the lawsuit immediately indicated that they would appeal the case to the California Supreme Court.


In a 2014 ruling that alarmed teachers unions across the nation, Los Angeles Superior County Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that five statutes in California's education code hamper the education of poor and minority students and rewarded "grossly ineffective teachers."


A three-judge panel of the Second Appellate District has now ruled that the statutes at issue do not violate equal protection under the California Constitution and reversed Treu.


"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," Presiding Judge Roger Boren wrote in a 36-page opinion (pdf). "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.


"Critically, plaintiffs 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," Boren continued, adding that with "no proper showing of a constitutional violation, the court is without power to strike down the challenged statutes."


The state argued at a hearing earlier this year that teacher tenure is a valuable tool in attracting and retaining the best teachers in the state and that the plaintiffs, nine California public school students, had failed to present statewide evidence that the statutes adversely affect students.


Four years ago, the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher represented the students in the landmark case, Vergara v. California.


At issue are state laws that students say unfairly grant teachers permanent employment, prevent removal of ineffective teachers from classrooms and during economic downturns lead to layoffs of teachers based on seniority rather than merit.


Under those laws, poor and minority schools end up with a disproportionate amount of "lemon" teachers who secure tenure in as little as 16 months, the students claim.


California and the teachers union defending the case argued that extending the probationary period would chip away at a benefit that attracts quality teachers and protects them from the whims of school officials and administrators.


In a statement, Students Matter founder David Welch said the students would continue to fight the case all the way to the California Supreme Court.


"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.


"We think the California Court of Appeals is wrong, so our fight for California students isn't over — not even close. We're taking this case to the California Supreme Court, and we intend to win."


Welch cited Treu's comments that the current system "shocks the conscience" and said it is "time for our state's leaders to do something about it."


Judges Judith Ashmann-Gerst and Brian Hoffstadt joined the opinion.


To Learn More:

Beatriz Vergara, et al., v. State of California and California Teachers Association, et al. (Court of Appeal of State of California) (pdf)

County Judge Obliterates California Tenure Law and Other Protections for Teachers (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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