Testimony begins in trial over California teachers’ job protections

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, who supports the effort to repeal the statutes, said in a deposition the single most important issue in student learning is the effectiveness of the teacher.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Arguments begin Monday in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of laws that govern California’s teacher tenure rules, seniority policies and the dismissal process -- an overhaul of which could upend controversial job security for instructors.

The lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit advocacy group Students Matter, contends these education laws are a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee because they do not ensure all students have access to an adequate education.

Vergara vs. California, filed on behalf of nine students and their families in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks to revamp a dismissal process the plaintiffs say is too costly and time consuming, lengthen the time period for instructors to gain tenure and dismantle the “last hired, first fired” policies that fail to consider teacher effectiveness.


The lawsuit aims to protect the rights of students, teachers and school districts against a “gross disparity” in educational opportunity, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.

The debate over teacher effectiveness has become increasingly contentious in recent years as school systems, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, try to link students’ standardized test scores to instructors’ evaluations, rather than keep using reviews in which no test data are included and nearly all teachers are rated as satisfactory. The dismissal process also has come under fire in recent years for the difficulty it causes school districts that seek to fire teachers accused of misconduct against students.

Teachers unions have vigorously defended tenure, seniority and dismissal rules, calling them crucial safeguards and essential to recruiting and retaining quality instructors. The lawsuit, they contend, is misguided and ignores the true causes of problems in education, such as drops in state funding.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, meanwhile, argue laws far exceed reasonable job protections and create an environment in which ineffective teachers are immune to scrutiny and consequences for poor job performance. Many students — overwhelmingly those who are minority and low-income — are destined to suffer from ineffective and unequal instruction because administrators are unable to remove ineffective teachers from schools, attorneys said.

Attorneys representing teachers unions, including the California Teachers Assn., contend wealthy benefactors and special interests are attempting to use their money to force their policy views on the state. The California Department of Education also defended the laws. It contends districts have the opportunity and discretion to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms and decide whether to grant tenure.

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, who declined to comment because he is a witness in the case, is a supporter of the effort to repeal the statutes. The lawsuit initially targeted the Los Angeles Unified School district and two other school systems, as well as California officials and state government. But the organization instead decided to focus on the state, dropping L.A. Unified.


In a recorded deposition, Deasy expressed frustration about having little time to decide whether to grant tenure to a teacher and about the laborious, expensive process of dismissing them.

“The future of our students depends on their ability to have the best and brightest instructors,” he said.

Students Matter was founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch, a research scientist who went on to co-found Infinera, a manufacturer of optical telecommunications systems based in Sunnyvale, Calif. The group is partly funded by organizations known for battling teachers unions. The foundation of Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad, which has backed numerous education initiatives, also supports it.

The group hired a high-profile legal team to argue its case. It includes Boutrous, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Theodore B. Olson, a former U.S. solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration. Olson argued Bush vs. Gore, over the contested 2000 presidential election, before the U.S. Supreme Court. Along with Boutrous, Olson also represented activists who sought to overturn California’s ban on gay marriage.