California appeals court overturns Vergara ruling

April 14, 2016

Students at Millikan High in Long Beach review practice SAT materials as they prepare for the college admissions process.

A California appeals court has struck down a trial judge’s controversial Vergara ruling that declared that several state laws governing teacher hiring, firing and layoffs are unconstitutional.

The appeals court decision in Vergara v. the State of California and the California Teachers Association is a victory for teachers unions in a case that has drawn national attention. At issue were five state laws that established layoff procedures based on seniority, laid out dismissal procedures and awarded teachers permanent status, known as tenure, after two years on the job.

David Welch, the driving force behind Students Matter, the organization that filed the lawsuit on behalf of nine students, promised the decision would be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

“I’m not going to mince words – we lost,” he wrote in an email. “This is a sad day for every child struggling to get the quality education he or she deserves – and is guaranteed by our state constitution.”

Read the entire ruling here.

In his 2014 ruling, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the teacher workplace laws interfered with students’ constitutional right to a quality education. The laws, Treu wrote, protected a small but significant number of “grossly ineffective” teachers and disproportionately harmed poor and minority students. In his 16-page decision, Treu wrote that evidence from a two-month trial “shocked the conscience.”

But in a strongly worded, unanimous decision, three judges of the Second District Court of Appeal, based in Los Angeles, wrote that the plaintiffs failed to show “that the statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students” – the prerequisite for an equal protection claim.

“With no proper showing of a constitutional violation, the court is without power to strike down the challenged statutes. The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea,’” the decision states.

The judges also said that administrators are responsible for deciding where low-performing teachers teach, but that the lawsuit attacked the statutes, not how they may have been inequitably applied.

“Although the statutes may lead to the hiring and retention of more ineffective teachers than a hypothetical alternative system would, the statutes do not address the assignment of teachers; instead, administrators – not the statutes – ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach,” the ruling states.

In a statement Thursday, Theodore Boutrous, lead attorney for Students Matter, said that the appeals court got it wrong. The decision “mistakenly blames local school districts for the egregious constitutional violations students are suffering each and every day, but the mountain of evidence we put on at trial proved – beyond any reasonable dispute – that the irrational, arbitrary, and abominable laws at issue in this case shackle school districts and impose severe and irreparable harm on students.”

He expressed optimism that “the California Supreme Court will have the final say.”

CTA President Eric Heins celebrated the ruling as a “great day for educators, and, more importantly, for students.”

“Today’s ruling reversing Treu’s decision overwhelmingly underscores that the laws under attack have been good for public education and good for kids and that the plaintiffs failed to establish any violation of a student’s constitutional rights,” he said in a statement. “Stripping teachers of their ability to stand up for their students and robbing school districts of the tools they need to make sound employment decisions was a wrong-headed scheme developed by people with no education expertise and the appellate court justices saw that.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement, “The Appellate Court clearly recognized that Vergara was a flawed ruling and overturned it unanimously. Now we can move forward together to recruit, train, and support talented and dedicated educators in school districts all across our great state.”

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