A Los Angeles Superior Court judge called teacher tenure-related statutes unconstitutional in a ruling released Tuesday.
Nine public school students (helped by nonprofit organization Students Matter) sued the state Department of Education over five Education Code statutes, saying they violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. Specifically, the civil claim targeted rules regarding tenure, dismissals and the last-in-first-out method for layoffs.
Judge Rolf Treu declared the tenure laws unconstitutional in his ruling in the Vergara v. California case, saying they deprive students of their right to education.
The evidence “shocks the conscience” and the court found that these statues disproportionately impact poor and/or minority students, he added.
“All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,” he wrote.
Ineffective teachers undermine the ability of students to succeed, and plaintiffs showed there are many ineffective teachers actively working in California, he added.
Tenure laws allow districts to make teachers permanent employees after two years of work, and Treu’s ruling says that isn’t enough time to make an informed decision.
“This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.”
California is one of five states that awards tenure after two years or less.
As to firing ineffective teachers, plaintiff attorneys argued that it is a years-long, expensive process to dismiss a tenured educator.
There was evidence presented during the trial that school officials don’t want to spend the time and money to investigate and pursue these cases because they think it’s impossible to dismiss tenured teachers under the current system, the ruling stated.
The trial also looked at the last-in-first-out rules for layoffs, where the staff members with seniority are kept on, no matter how gifted the junior teacher or how ineffective the senior teacher.
Treu called it a “lose-lose situation,” and noted that only 10 states, including California, have seniority considered as the sole factor or major factor when deciding layoffs.
Any injunctions to stop these statutes being enforced are pending appellate court review, and it’s expected that this case will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The decision doesn't apply to any Santa Barbara schools right now, but districts will "watch carefully as the situation develops for any broad applications to the district," said Margaret Christensen, assistant superintendent of human resources for the Santa Barbara Unified School District.
Santa Barbara Teachers Association president John Houchin, a teacher at Santa Barbara Junior High School, said the union is waiting to see what happens in the appeals court.
“So right now we’re just doing nothing, we’re holding our breath,” Houchin said.
If the ruling is upheld, it would result in significant changes, he noted.
In a statement released Tuesday, CTA and CFA leaders announced they would be appealing the decision.
“This suit is not pro-student,” CFT president Joshua Pechthalt said.
“It is fundamentally anti-public education, scape-goating teachers for problems originating in under-funding, poverty and economic inequality.”
There is a piece of legislation that would modify the firing process for tenured employees charged with egregious misconduct. Assembly Bill 215 was passed by the state Senate on Monday, and would reportedly give districts an expedited dismissal process for those employees and speed up the dismissal appeals hearing process.
“We see it as a win for students and for educators,” Houchin said. “I think it will be a positive step.”
It doesn’t appear to impact the dismissal process for unsatisfactory performance, unprofessional conduct or other reasons to fire an employee under Education Code guidelines.
AB 215 is supported by the California Department of Education and CTA while it is opposed by the Association of California School Administrators and the Association of School Business Officials.