(The article was updated on July 17 to include a comment from San Ramon Valley Superintendent Mary Shelton.)
Students Matter, which is challenging tenure and other teacher protection laws in Vergara v. California, filed a second school lawsuit Thursday. It is suing 13 school districts that it claims are violating the state law requiring student scores on state standardized tests be a component of a teacher’s evaluation.
The lawsuit, filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court, says that the districts illegally agreed in contracts negotiated with teachers to exclude test scores. Students Matters is asking the court to order the districts to follow the Stull Act, as the 1971 law is known.
Students Matter is a nonprofit created and funded by David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. In a decision last year, it won the first round in Vergara, when a state Superior Court judge ruled that five state laws establishing teacher layoffs by seniority, a two-year probationary period leading to tenure and procedures for dismissing teachers violated students’ constitutional rights. The case is on appeal.
Attorneys for Students Matter say that Doe v. Antioch, their new case, is the logical next step. “In Vergara v. California, we proved that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student success,” Theodore Boutrous said in a press release. “Meaningful and reliable teacher evaluations are crucial to determining whether students are being taught by effective teachers.”
Students Matter argues that student progress on state tests is an important and reliable measure of effective teaching. The Legislature agreed, when, in 1999, it amended the Stull Act to include test scores on state tests among the multiple measures in evaluations. The lawsuit says that in violating the law, the 13 school districts “intentionally disregard valuable student achievement data that are accessible to them, choosing instead to remain ignorant as to the quality of the teachers in their schools.”
“Meaningful and reliable teacher evaluations are crucial to determining whether students are being taught by effective teachers.” – Theodore Boutrous
The 13 districts serve approximately 250,000 students. Along with Antioch Unified, they are Chaffey Joint Union High School District, Chino Valley Unified, El Monte City School District, Fairfield-Suisun Unified, Fremont Union High School District, Inglewood Unified, Ontario-Montclair School District, Pittsburg Unified Saddleback Valley Unified, San Ramon Valley Unified, Upland Unified School District, and Victor Elementary School District.
The issue of test scores has been litigated already. In a 2012 ruling, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant agreed with Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice’s contention that the Stull Act requires the use of standardized test scores and ordered Los Angeles Unified to start using them. Chalfant left it to the district and United Teachers Los Angeles to agree on how and to what extent test scores should factor in an evaluation. With the departure of Superintendent John Deasy last year, the district and UTLA restarted discussions and have yet to reach a deal.
Chalfant’s ruling applied only to L.A. Unified and, since it was not appealed, gained little traction. In a report released earlier this year that sampled 26 districts’ compliance with the Stull Act, EdVoice found that 13 ignored the requirement to use student test scores in evaluations, and teacher contracts in San Ramon Valley and Upland – both named in the latest suit – explicitly prohibited using them. Others partially complied with the law, according to EdVoice.
Mary Shelton, superintendent of San Ramon Valley Unified, said Friday that she could not comment on the lawsuit, which she had not seen. She said that the district’s existing contract includes conflicting passages. One clause says that scores from any tests cannot be used for evaluations; another says that teacher evaluations should consider the progress that students have made toward meeting academic standards.
Shelton said that the contract is being revised. The district and teachers union have agreed to piloting an evaluation system that includes evidence of student progress. “It is headed in the right direction,” she said.
In reaction to the Vergara ruling, legislators in both parties introduced several bills this year to rewrite the Stull Act. All would clarify the standards for evaluating teachers, better designate who needs improvement and increase the frequency of evaluations. Republicans’ versions were defeated along party lines. Two similarly worded bills authored by the chairs of the Assembly and Senate Education Committees – Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, and Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, have stalled amid opposition from education management and civil rights groups.
One of the contentious unresolved issues involves how much test scores would count – and who would decide. The Stull Act leaves it up to districts to determine whether scores should count a lot or a little. The latest versions of Liu’s and O’Donnell’s bills – AB 575 and SB 499 – would, like the Stull Act, require student achievement as one factor of an evaluation, and it would require test scores on state tests to be one factor of measuring achievement. Both bills, however, would require districts to negotiate all of the details with teachers. Groups like the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association strenuously oppose this change.