Vergara v. California could become one of the most important cases to ever be litigated in California. The lawsuit’s outcome stands to impact hundreds of thousands of people in the State of California and has the potential to affect millions of lives across the Country. But what is the case? It’s possible you’ve never heard of it.

No, it’s not about the constitutionality of gun control legislation, same-sex marriage, or some patent infringement case between Silicon Valley tech companies. The case is about education. Specifically, the lawsuit concerns nine California school-children who are suing California over substandard teaching at their public schools. It is the matter of Vergara, et al. v. California, Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. BC484642.

The Case:

In Vergara, the plaintiffs challenged five California laws governing teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissals found in California’s Education Code. The students argued that said statutes violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. The allegedly offending statutes fell into three general categories:

  • Permanent Employment Statute (Cal. Ed. Code § 44929.21(b)): the permanent employment law requires school administrators to either grant or deny permanent/lifetime employment to teachers after an evaluation period of less than two years.
  • Dismissal Statutes (Cal. Ed. Code § 44934, 44938(b)(1) and (2) and 44944): the statutes make teacher’s positions highly protected, causing the dismissal process for ineffective teachers to be both arduous and costly…it is suggested that out of 275,000 teachers statewide, 2.2 teachers are dismissed for unsatisfactory performance per year on average.
  • “Last-In, First-Out” (“LIFO”) Layoff Statute (Cal. Ed. Code § 44955): the “LIFO” law requires school districts to base layoffs on seniority alone, with no consideration of teachers’ performance in the classroom.

The Decision:

On June 10, 2014, presiding Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled on whether these California teacher tenure statutes are constitutional. After a long bench-trial, the Court found all five statutes to be unconstitutional. According to the ruling, California teachers receive tenure after only approximately two years, but firing a tenured teacher “could take anywhere from two to almost ten years and cost $50,000 to $450,000 or more.” The Court found that while “[t]here is no question that teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought . . . the current system required by the Dismissal Statutes is so complex, time-consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.”  Judge Treu exclaimed, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience . . . There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.”

Judge Treu’s decision, however, was not just a diatribe against teachers as many critics are quick to argue. Instead, the Court took special care to argue on behalf of “effective” teachers. Indeed, the ruling can be seen as providing less-senior, but more “effective” teachers, with ammunition for better job security. “[T]he Permanent Employment Statute does not provide nearly enough time for an informed decision to be made regarding the decision of tenure . . . As a result, teachers are being re-elected who would not have been had more time been provided for the process . . . This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.” Indeed, in finding the “last-in, first-out” statute to be unconstitutional, the Court noted that, “No matter how gifted the junior teacher, and no matter how grossly ineffective the senior teacher, the junior gifted one, who all parties agree is creating a positive atmosphere for his/her students, is separated from them and a senior grossly ineffective one who all parties agree is harming the students entrusted to her/him is left in place. The result is classroom disruption on two fronts, a lose-lose situation. Contrast this to the junior/efficient teacher remaining and a senior/incompetent teacher being removed, a win-win situation, and the point is clear.”

In reaching his decision that the California statutes were unconstitutional, the Court applied a “strict scrutiny” standard. The Court found that based upon California and Federal precedent, there is a “fundamental right to equality of education” and that “plaintiffs have proven, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the challenged statutes impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education and that they impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.” Although not explicitly relied upon in the Court’s analysis section, Judge Treu noted at the beginning of his ruling that Brown v. Board of Education (1954) 347 U.S. 483 (along with other California cases) created this fundamental right to “equality of education.”

The Impact:

The application of a “strict scrutiny” analysis will likely be welcomed by school districts, much to the dismay of teachers and their Unions. Strict scrutiny is the most rigorous form of judicial review. Once a court determines that strict scrutiny must be applied, it is presumed that the law or policy is unconstitutional. The government has the burden of proving that its challenged policy is constitutional. To withstand strict scrutiny, the government must show that its policy is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest. If this is proved, the state must then demonstrate that the legislation is narrowly tailored to achieve the intended result. Thus, any attempt by school teachers or their Unions to introduce new tenure laws will be exceedingly difficult.

Moreover, with the Vergara decision in hand, school districts and school administrators will have a new tool in their box when dealing with unions and ineffective teachers. School districts, at least in California, could potentially use the decision as leverage during contract negotiations with teachers’ unions. School administrators looking to suspend or terminate an underperforming teacher will arguably have substantially more discretion to make these decisions as teachers and their unions will be unable to rely on the tenure statutes.

Additionally, with its allusion to the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Judge Treu’s ruling is expected to serve as a catalyst for similar litigation in other states. By finding that the U.S. Supreme Court decision grants a “fundamental right to equality of education,” the holding of Vergara is arguably not just limited simply to California. As such, future litigants in other states looking to attack teacher tenure laws will likely cite to the decision as support that the Federal Constitution, not just California’s, prohibits tenure laws.

It should also not go unnoticed the long history of monumental California decisions resulting impact on national attitudes. For example, shortly after California’s Supreme Court permitted same-sex marriages in 2008, national opinion (and judicial decisions in other states) soon began to accept same-sex marriage. In re Marriage Cases, 43 Cal.4th 757 (2008). Moreover, California was the first state to permit interracial marriage, which had a significant impact on the resulting national debate surrounding the issue. Perez v. Sharp, 32 Cal. 2d 711 (1948). Therefore, it is not inconceivable that – like the California decisions regarding other hot-button political topics before it – so too will Vergara spark litigation in other states hoping to establish the same constitutionally protected rights for students and effective teachers.

To Be Continued:

The Court’s decision on Tuesday provided only a temporary conclusion to more than two years of litigation, which included multiple attempts by Defendants—including the state of California and two of the state’s largest teacher’s unions—to see the case dismissed. The ruling is stayed pending appeal.   However, if the decision is upheld, it will have a significant impact on California students, teachers and school districts, as well as potential national ramifications.

A copy of the Superior Court’s decision can be found by clicking here.