Overturning a trial court ruling, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District held that teacher tenure laws are constitutional in the case of Vergara v. State of Californiadecided April 14, 2016.

The case involves nine public school students who challenged several provisions of California’s Education Code that govern K-12 public school teachers’ employment. The basis of the challenge is that the tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws result in grossly ineffective teachers being transferred to lower-performing schools with predominantly minority and low-income populations, rather than being terminated; and that; therefore, those students receive an inferior education.  Several associations representing school boards, school superintendents, and school administrators filed amicus briefs in support of the students’ position that the laws are unconstitutional.

The following specific provisions of the California Education Code were at issue in the case:

Tenure

Under existing law, K-12 teachers obtain tenure after working for two consecutive school years in a school district. However, school districts must inform teachers by March 15th of the teacher’s second consecutive school year whether they will be “reelected” as a permanent employee.  As a result, principals have only have approximately 16 months to decide whether a teacher is effective or not.

Dismissal

While the legislature implemented some statutory changes in January 1, 2015 dealing with teacher termination, generally teachers must be given written notice of unsatisfactory performance and at least 90 days to improve, before the district files written charges to dismiss the teacher.  A hearing on the written charges is held by a panel of an administrative law judge and two teachers who decide whether or not to dismiss or suspend the teacher.

Layoffs

With limited exceptions, existing law provides that teacher lay-offs are based solely on seniority.

The students challenged the tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws on the grounds that the laws violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. The students made a facial equal protection argument, meaning their challenge was to the laws themselves, not how the laws are implemented in particular school districts.

The trial court ruled, after a lengthy trial, that the tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws violated the equal protection clause. The trial court applied a “strict scrutiny” standard, meaning the state had a heavy burden of establishing a compelling interest to justify the laws and that distinctions drawn by the law are necessary to further its purpose.  Based on the evidence presented at trial, the trial court found that the short review period resulted in grossly ineffective teachers being given tenure, and that the termination procedures for teachers was so costly and time consuming that “efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher [is] illusory.”  Evidence was presented at trial that because it is so difficult to terminate teachers, a “dance of the lemons” occurs, where grossly ineffective teachers are shuffled to low performing schools with predominantly minority and low-income populations, rather than being terminated.  Additionally, the trial court found that the lay-off law resulted in students being separated from competent junior teachers while more senior incompetent teachers remained in the classroom.

The appellate court reversed, holding that the students had the burden of showing that assignment of grossly ineffective teachers to low-income and minority students “flows inevitably” from the challenged laws since they had made a facial equal protection challenge.

According to the appellate court, the students did not meet their burden because: (1) the evidence at trial demonstrated that teacher assignments are made by administrators guided by teacher preference, district policies, and collective bargaining agreements, and (2) none of the challenged laws tell administrators which teachers to assign to which schools.

Attorneys for the students already have indicated that they intend to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.