The Blog

Vergara Trial Nears End

Betty Olson-JonesVergara Trial testimony wraps up this week with closing arguments scheduled for March 27. Lawyers (bankrolled by billionaire David Welch and other corporate “reformers”) representing nine student plaintiffs have charged that California statutes dealing with layoffs, dismissal, and granting permanent status after two years are all unconstitutional and inflict disproportionate harm on poor and minority students. The State of California and intervening parties CTA and CFT have responded that these statutes work well in school districts all over the state, that they help school districts attract and retain quality teachers, and in fact have nothing to say about which teachers are assigned to which schools or to which students.

While the legal arguments are firmly on our side, and hopefully the judge will agree, a quick look back at the testimony over the past two months should lead anyone with common sense—without requiring a law degree—to conclude that the plaintiffs in this case have no case. 

The plaintiffs’ first witness, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, admitted that although teacher dismissals were rare in Los Angeles prior to his tenure, they have increased tenfold under his watch and roughly half of all probationary teachers are not re-elected for continuing service. He’s been able to do this using the existing statutes. He also vehemently denied deliberately putting an ineffective teacher in a struggling school, or that cost ever influenced his decision to recommend a teacher for dismissal.

The plaintiffs’ “expert” witnesses were largely policy wonks who advocate using effectiveness as shown by standardized test scores in a “value added” system to determine who gets laid off during Reductions in Force. None of them could testify that doing this would make layoffs more efficient (it wouldn’t—it would make them a chaotic nightmare), and none of them could reconcile the fact that most teachers, especially at the secondary level, don’t even have standardized test scores and most subject areas aren’t tested. They also completely ignored the collective responsibility for those scores (as well as other contributing factors) in cooperative teaching situations.

Finally five of the student plaintiffs themselves testified. All of them recounted “ineffective” teachers they had had. The problem with that testimony? The teachers they mentioned included educators with glowing evaluations and honors that included being the 2013 Pasadena Teacher of the year. Basically their testimony boiled down to “I had some teachers in the past I didn’t like all that much.” And based on the kind of testimony that could probably be elicited from students in any state, or for that matter any country in the world, plaintiffs want to blow up the whole system. It’s ludicrous. By the way, four of the plaintiffs—whose parents are more affluent and some of whom have ties to the charter school industry—were never even called to testify.

The defense case so far has been incredibly strong. Award winning superintendents and principals have testified that two years is more than enough time to determine if someone is an effective teacher. Those same administrators have testified to the effectiveness of the dismissal process and to the fact that the overwhelming majority—as high as 95%--of dismissal cases never even make it to a hearing, with the employee offering to leave voluntarily.

As strong as that testimony has been, perhaps the strongest testimony came from teachers. Former Oakland Education Association President Betty Olson-Jones countered prior testimony from an Oakland administrator by describing the chaos in Oakland Unified caused in large part by a 25% administrative turnover rate, and something like 15 superintendents coming and going during her time. She described administrators who were lax and inconsistent with teacher evaluation, and poor working conditions that led to high teacher turnover and burnout. She described Association efforts to try and turn these conditions around on behalf of Oakland students—but strongly demonstrating that dysfunctional district leadership and a lack of support and resources were the greatest obstacles to student achievement in Oakland, not teachers.

San Juan Teachers Association president and former California Teacher of the Year Shannan Brown (and later an assistant superintendent from San Juan) testified to the effectiveness and collaborative nature of that district’s teacher support program, as well as the role of Peer Assistance Review (PAR) in helping struggling teachers, and, in some cases, removing them from the profession. Brown spoke to the importance of due process and an independent hearing in her own career—having been berated as “unprofessional” by a former administrator after speaking out on behalf of students, and those protections also protecting her from having her job being threatened over her personal life.

Among the witnesses most damaging to the plaintiffs were the teachers who have been named by plaintiff students as ineffective. All of the teachers called had strong evaluations, were honored and respected by colleagues and administrators, and provided detailed testimony that countered the vague claims of the five testifying students. All of them did so with dignity and with no ill remarks for the students who have slandered them and put their names unwillingly in the spotlight. Anthony Mize, Elizabeth Vergara’s middle school English teacher, testified to her reading scores increasing by 134 in his class, and said that while she struggled in writing, she definitely had a “thirst for knowledge.”

The remaining witnesses in this case will continue to reinforce the fact that these laws work well in well-run school districts all over California. Stanford Professor Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond will be the final witness and is expected to severely undermine the plaintiffs’ apparently betting everything on the “value-added” model for measuring teacher effectiveness.

Vergara v. California is an example of what happens when people with too much money and no education policy background, those with an agenda that includes the privatization of public schools, decide to “blame the teachers,” while ignoring all of the factors and supports that are needed to improve student achievement. After a verdict comes either side is likely to appeal, so this won’t necessarily be over in the coming months. In the meantime, the case serves as an example of attempts by special interests to undermine our schools from the bench.

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