Capitol Alert

California court upholds teacher tenure, dismissal laws

History teacher Emily Holdaway, center, conducts class with the aid of a large screen TV during class at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael on Wednesday, February 10, 2016.
History teacher Emily Holdaway, center, conducts class with the aid of a large screen TV during class at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael on Wednesday, February 10, 2016. rbenton@sacbee.com

The controversial ruling that declared California’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws unconstitutional was overturned Thursday by a state appeals court, flipping the momentum in a landmark case that will head next to the highest court in California.

In an opinion signed by three judges, the state’s Second District Court of Appeal dismissed plaintiffs’ argument that expansive teacher job protections hurt California students, particularly low-income and minority children.

“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,” Presiding Justice Roger Boren wrote.

The decision is a critical victory for the state’s powerful teachers unions, which have for years easily batted back legislative challenges from groups seeking to overhaul the public education system by eliminating tenure and adding test scores to teacher evaluations.

Students Matter, the advocacy group that brought the lawsuit on behalf of public school students, immediately announced its intentions to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.

“The mountain of evidence we put on at trial proved – beyond any reasonable dispute – that the irrational, arbitrary and abominable laws at issue in this case shackle school districts and impose severe and irreparable harm on students,” lead counsel Theodore Boutrous said in a statement. “We are disappointed by the Court of Appeal’s decision today, but expect that the California Supreme Court will have the final say.”

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.

Presiding Justice Roger Boren

The original decision in Vergara v. California, issued by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu in June 2014, held that the state has deprived students of their right to a quality education through policies – a two-year evaluation period before rookie teachers can be hired on permanent status, a strict firing process, seniority-based layoffs during budget shortfalls – that keep “grossly ineffective teachers” in the classroom.

In a quote subsequently brandished by supporters of the case, Treu wrote that the evidence “shocks the conscience.”

But the appeals court panel was unconvinced, finding instead that blame for unequal educational experiences lies with the implementation of hiring and firing rules, and not the laws themselves.

“The evidence also revealed deplorable staffing decisions being made by some local administrators that have a deleterious impact on poor and minority students in California’s public schools,” Boren wrote. “A statute is facially unconstitutional when the constitutional violation flows ‘inevitably’ from the statute, not the actions of the people implementing it.”

Treu’s initial ruling ricocheted through California politics and the 2014 election cycle, becoming a central issue in the governor’s race and inspiring an expensive proxy battle for superintendent of public instruction. A win by the Vergara plaintiffs at the California Supreme Court would be the first significant crack in teachers unions’ longstanding influence at the Capitol.

Lawmakers have introduced a few bills in response, including Assembly Bill 934 from Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, that would provide extra support for struggling teachers and then allow for an expedited dismissal process if they do not improve.

But California Teachers Association President Eric Heins, who called the lawsuit “sideshow stuff,” said in an interview that no further legislation is necessary. He said he was “encouraged” that the appeals judges had listened to the union’s argument about school districts misusing otherwise “good and fair” employment processes.

“We think of it as a win for the educators in California, but also a win for the students,” Heins said.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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