Teacher Tenure Lawsuit Resumes in California

courtroom

Teacher unions went to court in Los Angeles again last week in an attempt to win back protections that were rolled back in a controversial ruling two years ago.

In 2014, L.A. Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu rocked the California education system by striking down the existing seniority and tenure system that had protected public school teachers. Treu sided with nine public school students who argued that the rules protecting teachers’ jobs jeopardized their right to a quality public education.

Treu concluded in a now benchmark decision, Vergara v. California, that teachers earn job protections too quickly, and he found that the process used to fire them was “so complex, time-consuming, and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.” He argued that the seniority system favored teachers, not students.

Reporters for the Los Angeles Times note that California teachers unions challenged the evidence presented in court. The plaintiffs’ example of an unfit teacher had been honored previously as “teacher of the year.” Additionally, the unions claimed that changing the seniority system would dissuade promising individuals from entering or remaining in the profession.

“The Vergara v. State of California lawsuit is an example of using our court system for political goals,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union. “Due process policies such as tenure are an important job protection that teachers value highly. These policies don’t prevent bad teachers from being fired; they prevent good teachers from being fired for bad reasons.”

Interestingly, as Lauren Camera of U.S. News reports, new survey data from Teach Plus, an education advocacy group, shows that a majority of principals in California agree with the plaintiffs when it comes to teacher layoffs. Out of more than 500 principals throughout California, 69% reported dissatisfaction with the state’s current teacher layoff system. Similarly, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the decision.

“Seniority-based layoffs are what holds our profession back from respect and progress,” one California principal said in the survey. “We are doing a great disservice to our students and communities when we honor tenure and seniority above doing right by our kids.”

By contrast, teachers unions have pointed out that states with the strongest performing students, such as Maryland and Massachusetts, have some of the most robust seniority protections for teachers. The issues that contribute most to underperforming students are out-of-classroom factors, like poverty, family background, and inadequate housing, not tenured teachers, they say.

Journalists at The New York Times report that the California case has had national implications. A New York-based group, Partnership for Education Justice, has filed a similar case in New York and is working in other states to challenge the seniority systems. The foundation is backed in part by the Walton family, the founders of Walmart.

A decision on the appeal is expected within 90 days. The case could also be further carried to the State Supreme Court.