In 2014, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s teacher tenure, layoff and dismissal laws violated the state’s constitutional guarantee of a quality education for every student. Judge Treu based his decision on compelling trial testimony, much of it from students, which he said, “shocks the conscience.” An appellate court recently reversed Judge Treu’s ruling, but it cannot reverse the harm those laws continue to inflict on California’s children.
The case, Vergara v. California, featured nine student plaintiffs, represented by Students Matter, a non-profit education organization. The students argued that the short probationary time before teachers received tenure allowed too many ineffective teachers to remain on the job permanently.
Also, the students argued that teacher layoff policies, where teachers with the least seniority were laid off first regardless of whether they were more effective than more senior teachers, hurt students whose learning is dependent on quality teachers.
Finally, the students said that teacher dismissal processes that cost school districts up to half a million dollars to dismiss a single bad teacher resulted in ineffective or even dangerous teachers remaining in classrooms.
In overturning Judge Treu’s decision striking down these laws, the appellate judges claimed that these laws “do not inevitably cause poor and minority students to receive an unequal, deficient education.” Yet, in making this amazing statement, it is noteworthy that page after page of the appellate ruling cited the testimony of the adult witnesses during the trial, but failed to cite any testimony from student witnesses.
Beatriz Vergara, the high school student from Pacoima who was the named plaintiff in the case, testified that her seventh-grade history teacher made “rude comments.” How rude? According to Beatriz, her teacher “would call us stupid and tell us that we’re going [to] clean houses for a living, and that Latinos are going to end up being ‘cholos.’”
Elizabeth Vergara, sister of Beatriz, testified that her eighth-grade English class covered one chapter of an assigned book over the course of an entire year.
Raylene Monterroza, another teenage plaintiff, testified that the best teacher she ever had was laid off because of the state’s “last in, first out” layoff policy. She also testified that her fifth-grade teacher would belittle students and “threw an overhead projector at the students,” which injured a student in her class.
The appellate court not only ignored student testimony in its opinion, but argued that local school administrators could correct any teacher-related problems.
However, the court acknowledged that such corrections, as laid out in the defendants’ own expert testimonies, involved trying to find ways to go around the laws, including paying out millions of taxpayer dollars to ineffective teachers to get them to resign rather than go through lengthy and costly dismissal procedures required by contested state law.
Despite the appellate court decision, the testimony of students recounting what they must face day after day and year after year in bad classrooms will continue to resound and echo through policymaking chambers. “The evidence isn’t going away,” says Daniel Weisberg, head of the education nonprofit TNTP. “No amount of tortured legal reasoning can sweep it under the rug.”
Beatriz Vergara, her fellow student plaintiffs and their legal team will now appeal to the California Supreme Court. Initial legal analyses indicate that there are solid grounds for the state’s top court to reverse the appellate court decision. Let us hope so, for as plaintiff Raylene Monterroza said after the appellate ruling was handed down: “We deserve better, all of us, in every school, in every grade, in every ZIP code. So even with this decision, we will keep fighting.”