Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A divided state Supreme Court Monday declined to review an appeals court ruling that upheld California’s statutes governing teacher tenure and the firing of educators, overturning a Los Angeles judge’s decision that struck down the laws.

The decision is a major victory for teachers’ unions, who insisted the laws governing tenure ensure that quality teachers are in classrooms.

Three members of the state Supreme Court, however, dissented in the ruling, saying the court should review the case.

“Because the questions presented have obvious statewide importance, and because they involve a significant legal issue on which the Court of Appeal likely erred, this court should grant review,” Justice Goodwin H. Liu wrote in a dissenting statement. “The trial court found, and the Court of Appeal did not dispute, that the evidence in this case demonstrates serious harms. The nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.”

Justices Ming W. Chin and Mariano-Florentino Cuellar also dissented.

In June 2014, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that students and teachers alike were “disadvantaged” by the statutes. The judge noted that teachers have a right to due process when they are being targeted for dismissal, but the current system is “so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.”

In April, however, a state appellate panel overturned the ruling, finding that while there appear to be “drawbacks” to the state’s statutes governing tenure and the firing of teachers, the plaintiffs in the case failed to prove the laws are unconstitutional.

In its 36-page ruling, the appeals court panel noted that the lawsuit pointed out “deplorable staffing decisions being made by some local administrators that have a deleterious impact on poor and minority students in California’s public schools.”

“The evidence did not show that the challenged statutes inevitably cause this impact,” the court ruled. “Plaintiffs elected not to target local administrative decisions and instead opted to challenge the statutes themselves. This was a heavy burden and one plaintiffs did not carry. The trial court’s judgment declaring the statutes unconstitutional, therefore, cannot be affirmed.”

The lawsuit, known as Vergara v. California, was filed in May 2012, alleging the laws governing teacher tenure and dismissal violate students’ constitutional rights to an equal education.

The suit named the state and two teacher unions that later intervened as defendants, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. The unions argued that the laws governing tenure were validly designed to keep quality teachers in the classroom.

In a hearing before the appeals court panel in February, plaintiffs attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. argued that teacher job protections result in a “dance of the lemons,” in which “grossly ineffective teachers” are simply transferred from school to school.

“It’s impossible to dismiss these teachers,” the attorney said, adding that ineffective teachers invariably end up in low-income and minority outposts.

“The students’ fundamental right to a quality education is being violated,” Boutrous said, urging the panel to affirm Treu’s ruling.

But Deputy Attorney General Nimrod Elias argued there is no evidence that students at some poor and minority schools are being harmed by the teacher tenure statutes.

“These laws help reduce teacher attrition,” he said. “There are benefits.”

Elias also argued that school districts statewide attract educators who might otherwise be dissuaded by what they may consider low pay and difficult working conditions. In California, administrators must in effect decide whether to grant teachers tenure — permanent employment — after just 18 months.

—Staff and wire reports

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