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Vergara v California: Ruling that would have ended state's teacher tenure rejected on appeal

A state appellate court ruled Thursday that job protections California teachers have enjoyed for decades — including tenure, a lengthy termination process and protections for senior teachers against layoffs — should remain in place.

The California Court of Appeals’ ruling  — a victory for state and national teachers unions along with their allies — overturns a lower court’s 2014 ruling in the long-running Vergara v. California case.

The plaintiffs in the case had argued these job protections did outsized harm to poor and minority students. They presented evidence during a 2014 trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court that these vulnerable students were more likely to have an “ineffective” teacher in their classroom — a direct result, they argued, of laws that made it difficult for administrators to fire these teachers.

But writing for the court, Presiding Justice Roger Boren said the plaintiffs “ultimately 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.”

“Administrators — not the statutes — ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach,” Boren wrote.

As expected, the plaintiffs — nine California public school students represented by the advocacy group Students Matter — said in a statement Thursday they will appeal the ruling to the California Supreme Court.

"The Court of Appeal’s decision," said the plaintiffs' lead counsel Ted Boutros, "mistakenly blames local school districts for the egregious constitutional violations students are suffering each and every day, but 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."

But Michael Rubin, the attorney who represented the state's two largest teachers unions in the case, said the appellate court's ruling was based on legal principles so well-established that there's no need for the state Supreme Court to take up the case.

"They were trying to push constitutional law to a place where it has never been, and the Court of Appeals said, 'No, you can't do that,'" Rubin said. "Under equal protection principles, this is not a case. It should not have gone forward, it is now over."

In May 2012, Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara — students in the Los Angeles Unified School District — and seven other students teamed up with Students Matter to sue the state of California.

Their complaint argued state laws rush school administrators into offering a teacher the protections of tenure before they can assess that teacher's effectiveness. Once teachers achieve tenure, the plaintiffs said the state's teacher termination laws makes it nearly impossible for districts to fire even an ineffective teacher.  The plaintiffs also took aim at "last in, first out" statutes — which require school districts to lay off the least-experienced teachers first in times of budget cuts.

Together, the plaintiffs argued these laws put "economically disadvantaged students, students of color, and English learners" at risk. The plaintiffs said — without the power to fire what they called "grossly ineffective" teachers — administrators would shuffle their least-effective teachers within a district from campus to campus, that schools that served the most vulnerable students often accumulated the highest concentrations of ineffective teachers.

In 2014, L.A. County Judge Rolf Treu affirmed their argument, ruling evidence of the teacher job protections' impact on poor and minority students "shocks the conscience." Treu ordered the tenure, seniority and dismissal laws struck down, but stayed his ruling pending an appeal to a higher court.

During trial, teachers unions took issue with the evidence plaintiffs presented, saying the value-added modeling the plaintiffs' expert witnesses used to support their claims about teacher effectiveness was flawed.

As a legal matter, though, Presiding Justice Boren rejected the argument that the laws creating the teacher job protections were themselves to blame for any harms to students.

"It is clear that the challenged statutes here, by only their text, do not inevitably cause poor and minority students to receive an unequal, deficient education," the decision read.

Document: Vergara ruling