On April 14, 2016, the California Court of Appeals overturned the June 10, 2014, decision in Vergara v. California. The appeals court overruled the Superior Court’s ruling that the Education Code’s schemes for certificated employee tenure, dismissals, and seniority-based layoffs are unconstitutional.
By way of background, Vergara et al. v. State of California, was originally initiated by Ms. Vergara, a California public school student, and eight other students. They claimed that the state’s laws granting tenure to certificated teachers after two years, establishing detailed rules for certificated employee terminations, and establishing seniority-based “last in, first out (LIFO)” layoffs violated their right to the same quality public education offered to other public school students throughout the state.
They argued, and the trial court judge agreed, that these laws protect “grossly ineffective” teachers from termination or layoff, and these teachers have a strongly negative impact on their students’ education and future earnings potential. These teachers, Vergara argued, are shuffled from school to school and wind up in the lowest-income, worst performing schools which disproportionately serve minority students.
The Court of Appeals found that Vergara and her fellow plaintiffs failed to prove that any of the statutes caused a “certain group of students” to receive an inferior education. The Court held that it is the teacher’s assignment by school administrators, guided by collective bargaining agreements and teacher preference, which creates an increased likelihood that ineffective teachers would be assigned to a specific student group over others. Since the statutes have no effect on teacher assignment, the Court found no “inevitable” constitutional violation.
For local educational agencies (LEAs) adhering to these statutes, the Court’s ruling will have little effect on how teacher tenure is applied. However, the Court’s emphasis on teacher assignment could signal the direction of future litigation by opening the door to challenge administrators who assign poorly evaluated teachers to struggling schools that serve low-income and/or minority students. The ruling serves as a reminder to LEAs to carefully evaluate teachers during their probationary periods and ensure that struggling schools are staffed with effective teachers.