A three-judge intermediate appeals court last week unanimously overruled the controversial decision in Vergara v. State of California that had declared California’s teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority-order layoff statutes to be unconstitutional. Last year, Los Angeles Superior Court judge Rolf M. Treu had declared these statutes to be unconstitutional “on their face” because they deny equal protection of the law to two subcategories of students who are assigned to classes with ineffective teachers, namely, 1) poor and minority students and 2) other “unlucky” students The trial court had estimated that 1-3% of the state’s teachers were ineffective.
The appeals’ court reversed because the plaintiffs failed to show that the challenged statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students. They emphasized that these statutes do not address the assignment of teachers, and that the critical decisions about which students are actually assigned to particular teachers are made at the local level by district administrators and principals. The Court also held that the subcategory of “unlucky” students was not a clearly identifiable group for equal protection purposes.
The case was brought by Students Matter, a conservative legal advocacy group that opposes teacher tenure and seniority lay off issues. The trial court’s ruling had stirred extensive interest in California and nationally, and a slew of California and national education and civic rights groups filed amicus briefs on the appeal. The Vergara plaintiffs have announced that they will appeal this ruling to the California Supreme Court.
A suit that similarly challenges tenure, dismissal and seniority statutes was filed in New York last year, and a new complaint with similar allegations was recently filed in Minnesota. The New York case is currently awaiting an appeals decision on the trial courts’ denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The New York case claims that the challenged statutes violate the right to the opportunity for a sound basic education of poor and minority students in New York State. The Minnesota claim is based on alleged violations of equal protection, due process and students’ right to a “uniform and thorough education” under the Minnesota constitution.
Despite the broad potential implications of this ruling, should it be upheld by the California Supreme Court, its national precedential impact may be limited because of unique aspects California statutes and constitutional law. Unlike the vast majority of states in which tenure is determined after 3-5 years, California law provides for only a two year period. Furthermore, since the tenure decision must be communicated to the affected teacher by March 15, and a number of administrators need to deliberate on this decision for several before that, in effect, tenure decisions are made in California about 18 months after the teacher commences service. This means that a decision on tenure must be made before the teacher has had a full opportunity to develop his or her skills; this situation also may result in the bizarre circumstance that a teacher who has been granted tenure may, a few months later, not be recommended for permanent certification at the end of the induction period.