What the Vergara ruling means for the future of teacher tenure in the U.S.


Editor’s note: On Aug. 22, the California Supreme Court voted to uphold the April decision, and let teacher tenure laws stand. You can read more about the August ruling here

California will be able to keep its teacher tenure and seniority laws, at least for now, because they’re constitutional. That’s what a California appellate court said in its ruling Thursday, overturning a lower court’s decision in the case Vergara vs. California. 

So what is this case, and what does it mean for teachers in California and across the country? 

What is the Vergara case?

Beatriz Vergara is a Latina teenager from Pacoima who attended Los Angeles Unified School District. She, along with eight other families, sued the state of California in 2012 in a case called Vergara vs. California. (Later on, the judge added the California Teachers Assn. as a defendant, at the union's request.)

The plaintiffs targeted the state laws behind the process through which teachers earn tenure after their first two years on the job, and a policy called "last in, first out" that laid off teachers based on reverse order of seniority instead of performance. They argued those laws were unconstitutional because they ultimately translated into a disproportionate amount of ineffective teachers working in schools that served primarily poor black and Latino students. During her testimony, Vergara said that her history teacher called her stupid.

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She and the other plaintiffs are backed by Students Matter, a Silicon Valley nonprofit founded by tech entrepreneur Dave Welch.

In 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying that tenure and layoff statutes in California are unconstitutional. The state appealed, and because the judge decided to stay the ruling pending the resolution of appeals, teachers didn't see any changes to the way they received tenure or layoff notices. 

Earlier this year, a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal heard arguments from both sides about whether to reverse that decision.  

What happened in Thursday's ruling?

On Thursday, that appellate court ruled that the judge got the ruling wrong, and that the statutes are not unconstitutional.

Any potential harm done by the tenure process didn't occur because of the laws themselves, the court said. Rather, the ruling stated, the evidence presented by the plaintiffs showed that staffing decisions are made by district administrators.

Therefore, the court concluded, there isn't enough proof to rule that the statutes themselves are making education worse for poor black and Latino students. If the lawsuit had targeted implementation, the court wrote, the ruling might have come out differently.

What's next in California?

The plaintiffs say they will appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court. They dispute the core tenet of the ruling: that administrators, not the laws, hurt disadvantaged students.

So it's still possible that teacher tenure could be overturned. But that's unlikely given the strong language shutting down the Vergara argument in the appellate court decision, said Stuart Biegel, a UCLA education and law professor.

"The court's job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are 'a good idea,'" presiding Justice Roger Boren wrote in the 3-0 opinion.

That said, state lawmakers might not touch the topic until the case is fully resolved, which may take a few more rounds.

The case itself and the attention it has drawn might also help local advocates pressure local districts to regulate the way they hire, assign and fire teachers. For example, unions negotiate so that older teachers in many districts are allowed first dibs on their preferred schools, which often puts experienced teachers in high-income neighborhoods, and introduces younger teachers and more turnover to low-income schools that serve mostly minority kids, said Katharine Strunk, a USC education and policy professor. 

Even Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said Thursday that elements of California's teacher tenure need fixing. 

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How does the ruling affect teacher tenure in other places?

If the 2014 California ruling had held -- or if it does hold in a higher court -- Vergara would deal a huge blow to teacher tenure, and it might have made it easier to undermine the practice in other states.

New York and Minnesota have ongoing lawsuits similar to Vergara. Now, though, judges could point to the California appellate ruling as a reason to deny the plaintiffs in those cases too, said Mark Paige, a public policy professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Even if the other cases do fall through, the Vergara case drew national attention because of the core issues at stake, the powerful forces competing and the outcome of the trial.

note to copy: the following three grafs are taken from our earlier story (and are from sonali's reporting):

“They wanted the knockout punch, and had they gotten that through sort of a systemwide strike-down, then the dominoes could have fallen in Minnesota and in New York,” Paige said. “But had they gone with a … focus it probably wouldn’t have served the objective of striking down tenure entirely.”

This case has brought much-needed attention to the way that state teacher tenure and layoff policies, paired with local agreements between teachers unions and school districts, cause high-needs students to get stuck with inexperienced teachers and high turnover of those teachers, Strunk said.

Even if a higher court maintains Thursday's decision, Strunk said, “we’re seeing a lot of pressure on state legislatures to do something.”

Reach Sonali Kohli at or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.


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