California lawsuit will put school tenure on trial 

click to enlarge Vergara v. State of California is a case in which families are suing the state to invalidate laws that give teachers tenure after only 18 months on the job. The trial will start January 27, 2014.
  • Vergara v. State of California is a case in which families are suing the state to invalidate laws that give teachers tenure after only 18 months on the job. The trial will start January 27, 2014.

It’s official: Judge Rolf M. Treu has issued a trial date in the case of Vergara v. State of California —January 27, 2014. And oh, what a trial it will be!

You may have heard about this remarkable case. Essentially, the families of school-age children are suing the state to invalidate laws that give teachers tenure after only 18 months on the job and then keep them from being dismissed even after committing egregious acts of misconduct.

The case also challenges state law that lays off teachers based on seniority alone — a practice that ensures instability and churn in lower-income neighborhood schools because the most senior teachers choose to work at “easy” schools in wealthier places. According to the plaintiffs, all of this adds up to denying a proper education to students, particularly low-income and minority students.

The case was filed almost a year ago and the defendants — the State of California, Los Angeles and Oakland Unified Schools Districts, the State Board of Education and a few others — first filed a motion to get the case tossed out. In doing so they argued, among other things, that students are constitutionally entitled to an education but not necessarily a good one. Judge Treu denied that attempt and the defendants appealed that decision. On January 29, that appeal was denied so the case will go forward — hence the recent announcement of a trial date.

Between now and January 2014, each party will attempt to file more motions to win the case without a trial. But don’t expect the parties to settle. The plaintiffs aren’t asking for monetary damages, only that the court invalidate the bundle of laws at issue. And in a document recently filed with the court, plaintiffs indicated that they are not open to resolving the case through mediation or other informal means. They want a decision about the five laws and there’s no chance that the state will simply agree to stop enforcing them.

The recent story about a student who secretly recorded her teacher stealing from students’ purses indicated that the administrator to whom the student reported the incident immediately asked the student to delete the footage.

Is anyone surprised that the administrator’s concern was for the thief? Does anyone believe for a second that this teacher will lose her job over this? Of course not. We all know that teacher seniority job protection is a powerful third rail in California.

So the case will go on and the parties will spend a lot of time this year fighting over the privacy of teachers whose misconduct and evaluation records are squarely at issue in this case. And I’m thrilled. The fight over whether teacher protections have resulted in harm to our students has been fought with little hard data. Hopefully this case will resolve the debate one way or another. It’s time to put the system on trial.

I’ll be in the front row.

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Melissa Griffin

Melissa Griffin

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