State files notice of appeal for Vergara ruling

August 29, 2014

UPDATE:  Late Friday, Aug. 29,  California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a one page notice of appeal on behalf of Gov. Jerry Brown and the state indicating that the state will appeal the Vergara ruling. 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson on Friday asked the California attorney general to appeal the landmark court decision in Vergara vs. California, which in June struck down statutes giving California teachers firing protections and rights to tenure and seniority.

The request comes two days after Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu affirmed his ruling in a final review Wednesday, triggering the 60-day window for filing appeals.

After a two-month trial last spring in Los Angeles, Treu ruled that teacher protection laws disproportionately deny poor and minority students access to a quality public education. The judge agreed with the claims from nine students in five districts that teacher tenure and dismissal laws result in “grossly ineffective teachers” being hired and retained and that these teachers are “disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students.”

In a statement,  Torlakson said that the ruling unfairly “lays the failings of our education system” at the feet of teachers. Teachers deserve “our admiration and support,” Torlakson said.

After a two-month trial last spring in Los Angeles, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that teacher protection laws disproportionately deny poor and minority students access to a quality public education.

“We do not fault doctors when emergency rooms are full,” Torlakson said. “We do not criticize the firefighters whose supply of water runs dry. Yet while we crowd our classrooms and fail to properly equip them with adequate resources, those who filed and support this case shamelessly seek to blame teachers who step forward every day to make a difference for our children.”

The court’s ruling “is not supported by the facts or the law,” Torlakson said, stating that he would ask Attorney General Kamala Harris to file an appeal.

The case was filed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, who founded the group known Students Matter to pursue the case on behalf of the nine students, including Beatriz Vergara, a high school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District who is the first plaintiff named in the lawsuit. Students Matter hired New York and Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Theodore J. Boutrous to make the case.

Treu agreed with evidence that poor students were disproportionately subject to the worst teachers in the state and ruled this is a violation of equal protection laws under the California constitution. While other constitutional law cases have addressed racial segregation and the lack of equality of opportunity, Treu wrote, the court is applying these constitutional principles to the “quality of the educational experience.”

In a statement following Treu’s finalization of his ruling on Wednesday, Boutrous said, “Judge Treu’s inescapable findings – that California’s teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoff statutes are harming students, and that poor and minority students are bearing the brunt of the harm – are supported by an overwhelmingly compelling trial record.”

Jim Finberg, a San Francisco-based lawyer who is representing the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, said the unions would be filing an appeal; he calculated the end of the 60-day deadline for appeals as Monday, Oct. 27.

“We have good grounds on appeal that the California equal protection law does not require the invalidation of these provisions of the California Education Code,” Finberg said, referring to provisions relating to when teachers are offered tenure, how teacher layoffs are handled and other employment matters.

Teacher employment laws promote academic freedom by protecting them from being fired “at will” by school boards, Finberg said. Without tenure and other protections, teachers “may not teach topics such as Islam or global warming that might be considered controversial,” he said.

Treu agreed to an injunction of his ruling, allowing existing laws to remain in place during the appeals process.


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