At first blush, the recent landmark California appeals court decision to uphold state teacher tenure and layoff statutes creates clear winners and losers — but is this the whole story of Vergara v. State?
In the landmark case, a group of parents and students had argued that California laws kept ineffective teachers in their jobs, thus giving students and inferior education. The statutes at issue granted probationary teachers certain due process rights after two years of successful teaching required that seniority determine layoffs. On April 14, a three-judge panel of the state’s Second Appellate District Court voted to uphold the teacher protections.
Teachers and unions can claim victory in Vergara because they managed to defend against a well-funded, and coordinated effort to abolish tenure.
Had they lost, there could have been national consequences (There may still be). On the other hand, the parents and students who brought the lawsuit certainly lost; the chances of these plaintiffs’ success on appeal are limited given the legal rules that govern such appeals.
The nuanced reality, however, may not be as clear-cut. In fact, the appellate court’s decision has set the conditions for all parties involved to obtain their objectives and, in fact, be winners. How, then, does the decision actually make everyone a winner and set the conditions for improving the quality of education for students?
First, the plaintiffs and their attorneys have sparked national attention to the problems associated with tenure – and potential solutions. Even union-side representatives have acknowledged that, in some circumstances, tenure can protect poor teachers, leading to sub-standard education. Consequently, many state legislatures are discussing amendments to their tenure statutes that maintain teacher due process rights and ensure teacher quality.
In New Hampshire, for example, that state’s legislature extended the time-period required (from three to five years) for teachers to demonstrate a performance to achieve tenure.
Indeed, the California legislature – after the Vergara suit was originally filed – amended their dismissal statutes in order to economize the dismissal.
Second, the profession, in general, may secure some benefits from this decision. The profession of teaching and education, in general, has been under attack. Studies have noted that fewer young people are choosing to become teachers. In part, this can be explained by actions seeking to reduce teacher job protections. Unfortunately, high-profile cases and their attending narrative can lump the many very good teachers with the few very bad teachers. Yet the Vergara decision should deliver some hope in slightly changing the discussion.
From a professional perspective, this benefit cannot be understated: it should help school districts retain and recruit new teachers to the field who might have otherwise felt that their jobs were under constant scrutiny.
Third, the appellate ruling delivered an opportunity for teacher unions to truly demonstrate their commitment to improving public education. Many have suggested that the Vergara suit was, at its core, a lawsuit intended to destroy unions. Regardless, the California teachers union scored a legal victory with this recent decision. But, more significantly, with that victory comes both opportunity and risk.
Unions must recognize areas where they can amend state laws that, in fact, short-change students. Existing layoff procedures that require a blind adherence to seniority, at the expense of performance, are areas that need change. If they recognize this – and use collective bargaining to achieve this policy objective – they may bolster their standing in the public and, at the same time, retain important job protections.
Of course, all the constituents in education could, in fact, take the wrong lessons from Vergara. For instance, if plaintiff attorneys continue to appeal the decision (they can bring this case to the state supreme court) they will delay the real reform that is required. They will continue to antagonize unions, pit teachers against students, and waste precious time and resources in pursuit of an illusory judicial remedy. Likewise, unions would be wrong to overplay their hand, declare victory and refuse to acknowledge that some compromise, especially with respect to lay-off processes, must be struck.
In any event, this much is clear: Vergara has created a moment to begin the real work of finding policy solutions that balance the rights of teachers to feel free from arbitrary actions alongside the rights of students to receive the best possible education.
The conditions have been set to start that conversation in a meaningful, collaborative manner.
It’s up to all parties to seize the moment and move forward. If that happens, children will be the victors in the Vergara case.
Mark Paige is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and the author of the coming Building a Better Teacher: Understanding Value Added Models in the Law of Teacher Evaluation.