The Appeal of an Appeal in Vergara
Judge Rolf M. Treu’s historic Vergara decision last week reverberated from the Los Angeles County Superior courthouse to every media outlet, union headquarters, capitol building, and school district in the country. But when California students went to class the next day, nothing had changed, and indeed, nothing will change for quite some time.
California’s arcane and harmful laws governing teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoff remain intact until they are replaced by something better. And there’s the crux of it. What exactly IS that “something better”? Frustratingly to some, Treu didn’t provide that direction. Nor should he: The work is now in the hands of Californians, who must decide how to reshape state policy in order to offer every child access to effective teachers.
California’s union leaders and status-quo defenders are scrambling to craft new laws this very moment, eager to address the unconstitutionality of the five statutes in question without actually substantively changing them. They will float dismissal reform that tinkers with the extensive outer layers of job protections without actually denting the armor that protects grossly ineffective teachers from being fired. They might slip in a bill that offers district leaders a few months’ more time to make tenure decisions without thinking outside the box about what truly compels a teacher to stay in and grow in the profession. They might consider legislation that would allow district leaders to use factors other than seniority when making layoff decisions, or more likely, they will put that sacred cow aside and let the recent Reed settlement handle it for the time being.
Let’s not confuse this frenzied action with a desire for substantive change. In tinkering with existing statutes, they hope to avoid the more sweeping kinds of reforms that could chip away at their power and influence. Regardless of what happens in California’s legislature, this case will likely weather appeals, and a higher court decision could elevate Vergara to precedent-setting, history-making proportions. By involving more state jurisdictions, a higher court decision could have a broader impact and apply the most pressure on California lawmakers. Therein is the appeal of an appeal for the nine student plaintiffs and the 6 million students of California.
Should California’s school and district leaders make progress immediately? Absolutely. They can and should begin implementing changes, starting with revised labor contracts, meaningful teacher evaluation and development policies, incentives for the best teachers to go to — and stay in — schools serving high-need students, and exciting growth opportunities for the best teachers. But are California’s lawmakers yet up for the challenge of innovative and transformative reform? Doubtful. So while we wait, let’s see how high this can go.
Carrie Hahnel leads research and policy analysis for The Education Trust–West. She focuses primarily on issues of funding equity, accountability, teacher effectiveness, and public transparency in California.