June 13, 2014

Vergara v. State of California Exposes Constitutional Flaws In Public Teacher Tenure Laws

A  Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge ruled Tuesday in Vergara v. State of California that teacher tenure laws in California are unconstitutional because they deprive students of their right to an education under the State’s Constitution.  The judge also ruled that the laws governing teacher dismissal and layoff (last-in and first-out) were also unconstitutional. 

In his decision, Judge Rolf M. Treu wrote that all sides agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important component to success of a child’s in-school educational experience, that grossly ineffective teachers substantially undermine the ability of that child to succeed in school, and that there are significant numbers of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.  Judge Treu went on to find that the challenged statutes impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and also impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.  “Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” Judge Treu wrote.

When it comes to tenure, California has a two-year tenure review process for its K-12 teachers.  California is only one of five states in the country with a tenure period of only two years or less.  The majority of states have a 3-year period.  Because of various notice requirements that must be afforded a teacher, the evaluation period in California is actually less than two years (in many cases 17-18 months long).  In the court’s view, both students and teachers are disadvantaged by such a short tenure evaluation period.

On the issue of the California State statutes for dismissing a teacher, the court noted that it could take anywhere from two to almost ten years and cost $50,000 to $450,000 to bring a teacher termination case to conclusion.  The court found that the current system for dismissals was so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make the effective, efficient and fair dismissal of a teacher “grossly illusory.”  Like the tenure rules, the layoff statutes were also found to be unconstitutional.

Public higher education institutions should watch this case closely to see what happens next, especially as it relates to State statutes impacting faculty discipline.  This could have implications for community colleges that are also saddled with an equally cumbersome dismissal procedure.  For example, the use of a Skelly type procedure (currently used for non-academic college employees, including public safety officers who already have additional statutory protections) instead of a Statement of Charges in faculty terminations would provide due process and at the same time a more efficient disciplinary mechanism.

Category: Public Sector,