Judge Strikes Down California Teacher Tenure Laws as Unconstitutional - Business-as-usual for school districts while ruling is appealed

by Best Best & Krieger LLP
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California teacher tenure, firing and layoff laws violate the state constitution, a judge has ruled in a closely watched case that may have significant ramifications for school districts, education departments and lawmakers. While the California Constitution guarantees that all students are afforded equal educational opportunity, the teacher tenure laws disproportionately impact low-income and minority students who attend schools with a high number of ineffective teachers — making the laws effectively unequal, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu found June 10 in Vergara v. California.

Nine California public school students brought the lawsuit against the state. Although the ruling in the students’ favor may limit teacher job security, it could also make it easier for schools to fire ineffective teachers and retain effective teachers. It could likewise encourage students in other states to bring similar suits.

The judge first found that California’s permanent employment statute, which gives administrators less than two years to decide if they will grant new teachers permanent employment, is unconstitutional because it does not give administrators nearly enough time to make an informed tenure decision. California is one of only five states with a two-year or less probationary assessment period, making it an outlier among the states. The judge noted that a three to five-year period would be more appropriate.

The judge also ruled that three teacher dismissal statutes are unconstitutional, finding that it is practically impossible to dismiss an inept tenured teacher. The judge noted that 2,750 to 8,250 — or 1 to 3 percent — of California teachers are grossly ineffective. However, it takes anywhere from two to 10 years, and costs between $50,000 and $450,000, to fire a tenured teacher, making the process so complex, time consuming and expensive that only .0008 percent of all state teachers are dismissed each year.

Finally, the judge struck down the “last-in, first-out” statute that requires the administration to fire the newest teacher first during layoffs, regardless of the teacher’s effectiveness. California is one of only 10 states that requires school administration to consider seniority in making layoff decisions. The judge noted that it is illogical that schools are forced to retain ineffective tenured teachers at the expense of highly effective newer teachers. These ineffective teachers have a detrimental impact on the quality of education students receive and their future earnings.

The judge ordered the state to stop enforcing the laws; however, the order was stayed pending appeal by the state, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. Depending on the outcome of the appeal, the decision may also impact legislators who must rewrite the challenged laws.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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