by Frank Wells
Martha Sanchez, Christine McLaughlin
On Jan. 27 a landmark court case attacking the professional and due process rights of teachers got under way in Los Angeles Superior Court. Vergara v. California is the latest in a series of simplistic “blame teachers first” solutions to complex challenges facing public education, and if successful would make it more difficult to recruit and retain good teachers in California schools. Although the state of California is the primary named defendant, CTA and the California Federation of Teachers have intervened and joined the defense in the case.
Who is behind this lawsuit? Although there are nine named student plaintiffs, the suit is really the brainchild of Students Matter, a group created by wealthy Silicon Valley businessman David Welch. Students Matter and the lawsuit have received support from corporate education “reformers” and school privatization advocates like Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution. They have hired a top law firm to handle the case and a high-powered public relations outfit to promote their version of the trial.
What are the plaintiffs trying to accomplish? By circumventing the legislative process and bypassing input from parents and other stakeholders, the plaintiffs are attempting to prove that the state’s two-year probation period, seniority/experience factored layoff procedures, and the process for dismissing ineffective teachers all violate the constitutional right to an education and disproportionately harm low-income and ethnic minority students by making more likely they will be assigned “grossly ineffective” teachers. They would like these laws struck down. They have also made it clear they would like to strike down similar protections in other states.
Do they have a case? While that is ultimately up to the court, based on evidence presented so far and on common sense, they do not. While plaintiffs have been able to demonstrate that some students like some teachers better than others, that layoffs are unfortunate, and that some administrators would like there to be fewer if any safeguards for teachers they would like to dismiss, any alleged harms they have tried to put forward cannot be tied directly to any of the challenged laws and in most cases are the result of poor (or to use their own language, “grossly ineffective”) administration. CTA’s attorneys are presenting strong witnesses and evidence showing these laws work well in well-run school districts and in fact serve legitimate interests that benefit students, and that current laws when applied by competent administrators and school districts help maintain a quality teaching force.
If plaintiffs prevail, how will this affect CTA members? That would depend on which, if any, of the statutes the judge were to strike down. It could mean that no teachers would receive permanent status until legislators redefine the probationary period. It could turn layoffs into a chaotic system based on favoritism and discrimination, and make the system even more cumbersome when individual layoffs are challenged. New legislation severely curtailing a teacher’s right to due process and fair treatment in dismissal might be enacted. Regardless of the trial outcome, appeals are likely.
Update: On Feb. 20, the day plaintiffs rested their case, CTA and CFT held a news conference showing the lawsuit to be groundless and outlining the defense that state and CTA/CFT attorneys intend to present. Martha Sanchez, a Los Angeles parent, told reporters she is “sick and tired” of poor parents being exploited by wealthy corporate interests like those backing Students Matter and the Vergara lawsuit. Click here for more about the press conference.
The trial is expected to continue through much of March. Learn more about the case at www.cta.org/vergara.
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