In a major victory for unions, a California appeals court on Thursday reversed a lower court ruling that had thrown out tenure and other job protections for the state's public school teachers.
The case was being closely watched across the country by those who argue that allowing administrators to more easily fire bad teachers would improve schools and student performance. Right now, there are a series of job protections that can be invoked before school districts can remove a tenured teacher.
“I think it’s a win certainly for educators, but also a win for students,” California Teachers Assn. President Eric C. Heins said of the ruling. “The trial never made the connection between the harms [the plaintiffs] were alleging and the statutes they were challenging. I think the laws have been working.”
The teachers association was a defendant in the case, along with the California Federation of Teachers and top state officials.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs, a diverse group of nine students, vowed Thursday to file an appeal with the state Supreme Court.
“We came to court to defend the rights of California’s public school students and will continue to do so, despite today’s temporary setback,” lead counsel Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. said.
The appellate court decision overturned the 2014 ruling in Vergara vs. California, which held that several key job protections for teachers were so harmful that they deprived students of their constitutional right to an education.
In that case, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu had sided with the plaintiffs, saying the tenure system resulted in educational malpractice that “shocks the conscience.”
The effect of the rules, he said, was to allow ineffective teachers to keep their jobs and subject students — especially poor and minority ones — to inferior schooling that could stunt their futures.
Treu stayed his ruling pending appeal; the three-judge appellate panel in Los Angeles saw the evidence and the law differently in a unanimous opinion.
“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,” Division Two Presiding Justice Roger W. Boren wrote. “The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea.’”
The appeals panel did not challenge evidence that many students are ill served in California public schools. But, the judges said, the laws being questioned were not necessarily responsible.
“The evidence at trial firmly demonstrated that staffing decisions, including teacher assignments, are made by administrators, and that the process is guided by teacher preference, district policies, and collective bargaining agreements,” Boren wrote.
Parties on both sides viewed the Vergara decision as a bellwether for the nation.
Similar litigation was filed soon after in New York; and on Thursday, just before the release of the appellate decision in California, another lawsuit was filed in Minnesota.
On one side are teachers unions and their allies, who say that well-protected teachers make for strong student advocates. On the other are philanthropists and others who criticize unions as defenders of a failed status quo.
In California, those union critics turned to the courts because teachers — ranking among the state’s most powerful interest groups — have been able to block substantial revisions to laws that protect them.
From the start, many Vergara supporters saw victory as a long shot but reasoned that the effort at least would keep teacher unions and their allies on the defensive — and call attention to parts of the system they wanted to change.
Kevin Welner, an education professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said he found the initial filing so flawed that he assumed it was designed as “part of a larger public relations effort, not from a belief that they would win.”
FOR THE RECORD
April 15, 8:32 a.m.: An earlier version of this article gave the name of a University of Colorado, Boulder professor as Kevin Weiner. His name is Kevin Welner.
But the plaintiffs did prevail at trial, in a ruling that made headlines across the country — and seemingly raised the stakes, with then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hailing the outcome.
Treu’s decision nullified the state’s system of awarding tenure at the end of an instructor’s second year on the job.
The judge also struck down the practice of “last in, first out,” which typically results in districts laying off less-experienced teachers during budget cuts — regardless of how well they perform in their job.
In addition, Treu threw out rules that provide teachers a longer and more complex system to challenge dismissals.
Had the Vergara ruling been upheld, teachers at unionized schools no longer would be entitled to a level of job security that's rare, even in the public sector.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the state's teachers unions had characterized the outcome sought by Vergara as simplistic, wrong-minded and even injurious to students.
They said that eliminating tenure and seniority would result in a lower-quality teaching corps, and that the profession would attract and retain fewer talented people who have other career options.
State Public Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson, who was elected with the backing of teacher unions, lauded Thursday’s decision.
“Teachers are not the problem in our schools,” he said in a statement. “The appellate court clearly recognized that Vergara was a flawed ruling.”
California Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes, who represents Yucca Valley, said in a statement that he disagreed with the ruling and that lawmakers can act even without a court mandate.
“Legislators in Sacramento have the tools available right now to end bad policies such as ‘last in, first out’ and our currently flawed teacher tenure system,” Mayes said. “It is time to stop defending laws that are clearly indefensible and deprive low-income and minority students of a good education.”
At least one union leader, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, has said that some employment rules are “problematic” and should be improved. But she too hailed the reversal: “You can’t fire your way to a teaching force.”