The June court ruling against teacher employment laws in California was the opening salvo in a battle that already has moved to New York and likely will spread from there. It also could mark the beginning of a third great era of U.S. education reform – one that focuses not on inputs or outcomes but on the workings of schools themselves.
Moments before closing arguments began in the landmark case Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf Treu asked those in his courtroom to stand, turn and look at two portraits: one of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, the other of California Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Wright. He reminded everyone that Warren led the high court to unanimity in Brown v. Board of Education, which marked the beginning of the end of segregation in U.S. public schools. Then he noted that it was Wright who led the state Supreme Court when, in Serrano v. Priest, it invalidated California’s uneven school financing system. “Both decisions have an impact on what we’re doing here today,” he noted.
Not long afterward, Treu added Vergara to that pantheon. In the most explosive education-related court ruling in a generation, he invalidated several laws dear to California teachers’ unions, including statutes that provide their members generous tenure rights and seniority protections and specify elaborate and costly procedures required to fire a teacher.
The judge’s words were as striking as his verdict: The dismissal statutes prevent firing even “grossly ineffective” teachers whose effect on students “shocks the conscience”; the logic of the “last in, first out” law that prevents job performance from being a factor in layoff decisions is “unfathomable.” Taken as a group, he said, the Vergara statutes particularly harm the most vulnerable: the poor, minority, non-English-speaking students often clustered in low-performing schools.