Breaking new ground regarding the role of the courts in educational-policy issues, a Superior Court Judge in Los Angeles ruled last week that the state’s tenure, teacher dismissal and seniority-order layoff statutes are unconstitutional under the state’s equal protection clause. Vergara v. State of California. If upheld by the California Supreme Court, this decision could have significant implications in setting a precedent for courts to reach beyond issues of intentional racial discrimination and adequate funding and to review a broad range of state educational policy decisions that arguably may impede students’ opportunities for a sound basic education.
The case was brought by Students Matter, a conservative legal advocacy group that opposes teacher tenure and seniority lay off issues. Defendants included the State of California, and the governor, the state teacher’s union and teachers association were permitted to intervene.
Despite the broad potential implications of this ruling, should it be upheld on appeal, 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. As the court pointed out, this short period conflicts with the full two year statutory teacher induction program. 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.
California’s dismissal statute is also particularly arduous, taking two to ten years to complete, and costing from $50,000 to $450,000, according to the evidence in the case. These factors make it “extremely rare” for teachers to be dismissed because most administrators believe it is “impossible” to dismiss a teacher under this statute. Because the California Supreme Court has held that education is a fundamental interest, and that strict scrutiny will be applied to cases involving not only racial minorities, but also to students from poverty backgrounds, the burden on the state to justify these statutes was especially heavy.
The court took no position on what alternative statutory procedures might pass constitutional muster, and it did not hold that tenure per se is unconstitutional. It left these remedial decisions to be determined by the legislature and the state authorities. Recognizing the far-reaching implications of its decision, the court also stayed the effect of its order, pending appellate review.
June 17, 2014