Teachers’ unions in California suffered a significant setback earlier this month when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled in Vergara v. California that certain statutory job protections for teachers were unconstitutional. Although the final determination of the statutes’ constitutionality will undoubtedly be subject to appeal, the media has given widespread attention to the lower court’s opinion. Political pundits immediately framed the Vergara decision as the latest chapter in the battle between teachers’ unions vs. school reformers, and have prematurely predicted the demise of similar protections for teachers in other states. It is important, however, to cut through the political rhetoric surrounding this case and focus on the details of the actual decision.
In Vergara, the court considered five different California state statutes that fit into three categories: 1) teacher tenure, 2) teacher “dismissal” statutes, and 3) Last In, First Out layoff provisions. The court first considered California’s two-year tenure statutes, finding that it was a “misnomer” because the actual decision on reelecting a teacher must be made months in advance of the teacher’s two-year anniversary. The court found that this timeframe was too short for school administrators to make an informed decision, and therefore “disadvantaged” both teachers and students. With regard to the dismissal statutes, the court found that California teachers were afforded due process rights that made it too time-consuming and costly for school administrators to remove ineffective teachers. The court focused solely on statistics regarding teacher terminations in California and cost estimates provided by the plaintiffs’ witnesses. Despite labeling the due process protections as “über due process,” the court did not go into any detail regarding the actual statutory protections and how they differed from other unionized employees’ rights. Finally, Judge Treu expressed his displeasure that California’s Last In, First Out lay off procedures did not factor in “teacher effectiveness.” He concluded that the state had no “compelling interest in the de facto separation of students from competent teachers, and a like interest in the de facto retention of incompetent ones.”
Perhaps the most controversial part of Judge Treu’s ruling was his finding that these statutes together have a disproportionately negative effect on poor and minority students. Indeed, Judge Treu opened his opinion somewhat brazenly by comparing the case to Brown v. Board of Education. He stated that Brown was about “equality” of education and that the case before him was about “quality” of education. While Judge Treu’s opinion certainly did not lack in colorful rhetoric, it does lack a depth of analysis. In the coming years we will learn if his conclusions and analysis are convincing to the appellate courts.