Nearly two years after Vergara v. California trial first began, the case is set to move forward as judges from a state appeals court will hear arguments this Thursday, Feb. 25.
The plaintiffs – nine students in five California public school districts – argue that five laws governing teacher dismissal, tenure, and “last in-first out” layoff policies deprive them of their right to a quality education, in violation of the state’s constitution. Those policies disproportionately harm minority and low-income students, they say.
After a two-month trial in early 2014, Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, declaring those laws unconstitutional. Treu delayed the portion of the ruling banning the imposition of those laws pending appeals. Arguments resume this week.
Here’s what you need to know ahead of the appeals court arguments:
1. What are the plaintiffs’ arguments, and who is supporting them?
Attorneys representing the students argued that California’s constitution, as interpreted in past cases, requires the state to provide a quality education. The five laws in question deprive students of that equal education, and poor and minority students are more likely to be assigned low-performing teachers, the plaintiffs argued.
Specifically, they said California’s two-year time period for tenure was too short to adequately evaluate new teachers. The cumbersome dismissal procedure made it too difficult to fire ineffective teachers who harmed students, they said. “Last in-first out” layoff policies forced districts to ignore teacher quality and students’ best interests.
Parents, students, teachers, superintendents and other school officials testified on their experiences under the law. Researchers testified about the harmful effects of an ineffective teacher on students’ test scores and long-term earning potential as adults.
The students filed the lawsuit with the backing of Students Matter, a national nonprofit that “promotes access to quality public education through impact litigation, communications and advocacy.” (The group has also filed a case challenging 13 California districts’ teachers contracts that prohibit the use of standardized test data in teacher evaluations, which they say violates a 1971 law.)
As the case has moved to the appeals stage, numerous individuals and groups have filed “friend of the court” briefs backing the students, including former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; a coalition of groups including the Education Trust-West and the Los Angeles Urban League; business groups including the California Chamber of Commerce; and current and former superintendents, including New Mexico’s Hana Skandera, Louisiana’s John White, and Cami Anderson of Newark, N.J.
2. What are the union and the state’s arguments, and who is supporting them?
The California Teachers Association, which intervened on behalf of the state, argues that the lawsuit “has highlighted the wrong problems, proposed the wrong solutions, and followed the wrong process.” They say the laws at question are not unconstitutional and don’t harm students.
Unions have also argued in briefs that there isn’t evidence linking the least effective teachers to the neediest schools, and that there’s no evidence students named in the lawsuit have been taught by the worst teachers.
They also argued that the probationary period is enough time to weed out early-career ineffective teacher. On dismissals, they argued that most dismissal proceedings resulted in some early settlement or the teacher dropping the challenge, and that schools win when the process finishes through completely. On “last in-first out,” they argue that in the aggregate, more experienced teachers are more effective than newer ones and that without seniority protections, schools will simply choose to keep newer teachers who make less.
The state has argued that the laws are necessary to create a stable workforce and attract people to a profession that often offers low pay and difficult working conditions.
National unions – including the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and other national groups – filed amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the unions. A coalition of civil rights groups, including the Education Law Center and Southern Poverty Law Center, also weighed in on the unions’ behalf.
The union also argues that Students Matter is “an organization created by Silicon Valley multimillionaire David Welch and a private public relations firm for the sole purpose of filing this suit.” CTA says those who back Students Matter have “an interest in privatizing public education and attacking teachers’ unions.”
3. What’s happened in the case so far?
Students Matter filed the lawsuit in 2012. After the judge dismissed the state and unions’ motions for dismissal and immediate judgment, the trial began in March 2014. Proceedings lasted 33 days.
Judge Treu issued his ruling in June 2014 declaring all five laws unconstitutional.
There is “no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms,” he said in the opinion.
The evidence on the effect of ineffective teachers “shocks the conscience,” Treu wrote. He also said there is evidence that the laws in question disproportionately affect poor and minority students.
The state and unions appealed, setting the stage for the Feb. 25 arguments before the appeals court.
4. What are the next steps?
A three-judge panel will hear arguments from judges representing the students and the state and teachers’ union, on Thursday, Feb. 25. Lawyers will have arguments prepared, mostly about the validity of the lower court’s ruling, and justices will interrupt to ask questions. While the 2014 trial lasted for months and involved the presentation of scores of witnesses and evidence, this trial likely won’t last more than an hour and will be more focused on the legal issues at hand and evidence already presented.
California rules require that the judges rule within 90 days, so a decision should be released by the end of May. The decision takes effect 30 days after that, unless one of the parties appeals to the state supreme court.
5. Why should people outside California care?
Each state sets its own laws governing teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff policies, and the rights the students assert are given under the state constitution, so similar efforts will come in state courts. Several similar lawsuits have already been filed, including two in New York that have been merged into one case. (The 74’s editor in chief, Campbell Brown, founded the Partnership for Educational Justice, the group that filed one of those two lawsuits.)
This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report