Students Matter founder and funder David Welch speaks after the 2014 Superior Court ruling that backed the claims in Vergara v. California and CTA.

A state appeals court will rule on the high-profile Vergara lawsuit against the state and the California Teachers Association this spring.

On Friday, the state Court of Appeal, Second District, in Los Angeles set Feb. 25 for oral arguments on the lawsuit the nonprofit group Students Matter brought on behalf of nine students in 2012. They are challenging five state teacher workplace laws they claim harm students’ right to an equal opportunity for an education. A panel of three justices hearing the case must rule within 90 days after the hearing, by the end of May.

Vergara has become the center of a national debate over teacher unions and protections and has prompted a similar lawsuit in New York.

The state and the CTA are seeking to overturn a June 2014 ruling by Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu, who found that the statutes – governing teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissal procedures – protected a small but significant number of “grossly ineffective” teachers that disproportionately harmed poor and minority students. In his 16-page decision, Treu wrote that evidence from a two-month trial “shocked the conscience.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the laws worked in tandem, amplifying the harm. They said the state’s statute granting new teachers legal protections known as tenure, after less than two years on the job, is inadequate to screen out poor performers. Dismissal statutes then make it unnecessarily difficult and expensive to fire bad teachers who often are transferred to low-performing schools, they said. And a last-in, first-out layoff statute pushes out newer teachers, regardless of skills and performance, they argued.

“The unavoidable consequence of these statutes is that California school districts are stuck with a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers – teachers that everyone knows cannot, or will not, teach,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argue in their brief to the court of appeal. Indirectly referring to the CTA’s political clout, their brief said that the inequalities are “the product of excessive teacher job privileges – perks secured through the legislative process by well-funded and politically connected adults at the expense of children.”

The state attorney general and the CTA argue that the plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes – the clear prerogative of the Legislature to write – caused the harm that they claimed, particularly to the nine students who brought the lawsuit. Both sides cited evidence from 60 witnesses to back up their arguments. School administrators testifying for the defense said the laws don’t stand in the way of denying poor performers tenure or making the case to fire them later on. Layoffs based on seniority establish an objective criterion that shield higher paid or outspoken teachers from retribution. There is no basis, the CTA wrote in its brief, “for invalidating the entire integrated statutory scheme as facially unconstitutional, especially given the undisputed evidence that many school districts make reasoned tenure, dismissal, and (layoff) decisions.”

Since Treu’s ruling, the Legislature has changed the dismissal laws to speed up and simplify dismissal proceedings – but not enough, Students Matter argues, to make a substantive difference.

The CTA has characterized the Vergara lawsuit as part of a larger campaign by wealthy backers to weaken unions. David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, created and is funding Students Matter.

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