A hotly contested lawsuit in California could pave the way for teacher tenure law reform across the country. The education advocacy group, Students Matter, filed suit in 2012 against the State of California on behalf of nine California public school students seeking to strike down five state teacher tenure statutes. The plaintiffs, in Vergara v. California, argue that these statutes force retention of grossly ineffective teachers and that a disproportionate share of these ineffective teachers work in poor and minority schools. This leads to discrimination against underprivileged children in the public school system by denying them equal educational opportunities, thus violating the equal protection provision of the California Constitution.
The statutes being challenged require school administrators to either grant or deny full tenure to new teachers within 18 months of their employment, which the plaintiffs argue is too soon to fully assess a teacher’s effectiveness. Once tenure is granted, the plaintiffs argue that it is too difficult to terminate a teacher for poor performance. Dismissal statutes require strict and lengthy procedures, years of documentation, and a significant amount of public funds in order to dismiss a teacher. According to the plaintiffs, only 91 public school teachers have been dismissed in the entire state of California over the past 10 years, with only 19 of those dismissals being based on poor performance. Finally, the plaintiffs challenge the state’s “Last-In, First-Out” layoff statute, which requires that newly hired teachers be dismissed first when a reduction in force is necessary. According to the plaintiffs, this statute requires schools to often keep ineffective teachers simply because of their seniority over newer, motivated teachers.
The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have intervened in the case and join the State in defending these statutes. Last week, the judge heard closing arguments from both sides. A ruling is expected sometime after April 10.