On Tuesday, a Los Angeles Superior Court issued a ruling in Vergara vs. California that could have a profound and positive effect on California's schools.
The court's decision in favor of nine student plaintiffs is a decisive step toward creating a system that puts the educational rights of California students before other interests. In ruling that key state laws governing teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff are unconstitutional, the court put California schools on notice that the education system must behave differently.
The lawsuit, brought on behalf of the students by the education advocacy group Students Matter, contended that California laws have made it far too difficult to weed out bad teachers, thus saddling students with instructors who shouldn't be in the classroom. As superintendent of the second-largest school district in the nation, I testified in that lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs, because I agree that state laws have been far too constricting.
Nothing we administrators do in the public schools is more important to the education of a child than ensuring the quality of his or her teacher. When parents entrust their kids to us, they expect that we will do everything in our power to guarantee that those kids have the best educators available — teachers who will help unleash their students' potential and allow them to participate in the American dream.
Unfortunately, as the state's education laws have stood, school administrators across the state haven't had the power to ensure that all classrooms were led by good teachers. Teacher tenure laws have required us to decide whether or not to grant permanent employment to a teacher after just 16 months. That isn't enough time to decide whether a teacher will be effective over the long haul.
Once tenure was granted, dismissing a bad teacher became burdensomely difficult. And in times of budget cutbacks, the law required that the last teachers hired were the first fired, which robbed administrators of the ability to make layoff decisions on the basis of which teachers were most effective.
As a consequence of these laws, which were challenged in the Vergara lawsuit, too many students throughout the state have been saddled with grossly ineffective teachers, and administrators have had little power to remove them. Far too much of school districts' money and administrators' time has been spent trying to dismiss ineffective teachers — funds and time that could have been spent far more productively on improving education.
The system has made it difficult to live up to the schools' sacred pact with the public: to ensure that every student graduates ready for college or for joining the workforce.
But that is all about to change. In Tuesday's decision, the court struck down the very laws that have kept ineffective teachers in the classroom and denied students their fundamental right to equal educational opportunity. The court ruled that five statutes in the California Education Code — those governing permanent employment, dismissal, and "last-in, first-out" layoffs — are unconstitutional as currently written.
During the Vergara trial, I testified from firsthand experience about the real harm that these laws have in our classrooms every day. I provided testimony about the barriers these laws create for administrators and the negative impact they have on students — and on the Los Angeles Unified School District's many great teachers. This decision is a call to action to begin implementing the solutions that will help us address the problems highlighted during the Vergara trial.
Now we must engage with elected leaders in the state and across the nation to launch a new dialogue about the future of schools. We will finally have the opportunity to craft a system that puts the needs of children first and allows school leaders to make informed decisions about who should be in front of the classroom.
The Vergara ruling has presented California schools with an opportunity to rectify a catastrophe. Now it will be my responsibility and privilege to ensure that L.A. Unified students have highly competent and effective teachers in their classrooms. This guarantee must be not to some students, or most students. It must be to every single student every single day.