Suit claiming California’s tenure laws deny minority students their constitutional right to education survives motion for judgment

EdSource reports that California’s education trial of the year, Vergara vs California, in which the plaintiffs argue that state tenure laws operate to deny poor, minority children their constitutionally guaranteed right to an equal opportunity for an education, will continue after the judge denied the defendants’ motion for judgment at the close of the plaintiffs’ case.  The judge rejected the state’s argument that, after presenting a month’s worth of evidence, the plaintiffs had failed to make their case.

The lawsuit was filed by Students Matter, a nonprofit created by business executive David Welch.  During a month of testimony, a high-profile team of lawyers presented 20 witnesses for the plaintiffs.  They included Raj Chetty, an economics professor at Harvard, whose research showed that grossly ineffective teachers – roughly 5 percent of teachers – cause “irreparable harm” to students, lowering their odds of graduating and getting into a good college, with the result that they will earn less and save less for retirement over their lifetimes.  Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy and former Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond testified that the time and great expense of firing bad teachers, caused by onerous dismissal laws, led to triage, in which some bad teachers remained on the job.

The plaintiffs also challenge a “last-in, first-out” law requiring layoffs by seniority.  Because less experienced teachers predominate in high-poverty schools, those schools are two-thirds more likely to have a teacher laid off than low-poverty schools, said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, which advocates for poor children.  Larissa Adam, a principal from Oakland, testified that the ineffective veteran teachers whom the district transferred to her high-poverty school after layoffs of newer teachers contributed to a disastrous decline in student achievement.  The statutes have a “real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to education” and “directly cause school administrators to make vastly different teacher employment decisions than they would otherwise make if they were permitted to act in the best interests of students,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued in rebuttal to the dismissal motion.

In its motion to dismiss, the state argued that the plaintiffs acknowledged that most of the states’ 275,000 teachers are effective and that they failed to show that the laws, as opposed to inept handling of them, caused the hiring and retention of grossly ineffective teachers.  According to the state, the plaintiffs also failed to prove the students (only five of whom testified) were disproportionately harmed by grossly ineffective teachers or that they even were taught by them.

The State Attorney General’s Office, the California Teachers Association, and the California Federation of Teachers will now present their defense.

Source: EdSource, 3/4/14, By John Fensterwald

[Editor's Note: The complaint makes the following assertions:

3. Studies show that students who are unfortunate enough to be assigned to two or more grossly ineffective teachers in a row are unlikely ever to catch up to their peers.  But the problem is worse for students at schools that serve predominantly minority and economically disadvantaged populations because those schools have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers.  In certain school districts, students of color are two to three times more likely to have bottom-quartile teachers than their white and Asian peers.  Thus, the laws at issue perpetrate and widen the very achievement gap that education is supposed to eliminate.

42. The grossly ineffective teachers are disproportionately situated in schools that serve predominantly low-income and minority students.  A recent study of the LAUSD found that a “low income student is more than twice as likely to have a low value-added [English-Language Arts (“ELA”)] teacher as a higher income peer, and 66 percent more likely to have a low-value added math teacher.”  The data reveals that the “patterns are even more pronounced for students of color, with Latino and African-American students two to three times more likely (in math and ELA respectively) to have bottom-quartile teachers than their white and Asian peers.”

In April 2013, Legal Clips summarized a story from Southern California Public Radio 89.3 KPCC reporting that the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) were intervening as defendants in this lawsuit.]

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