In a much anticipated and well-publicized tentative ruling, the Los Angeles Superior Court (“trial court”) issued a tentative ruling on June 6, 2014 in Vergara v. State of California, Case. No. BC484642. Plaintiffs in the case were nine California public school students who claimed five education code statutes were unconstitutional. These "challenged statutes" dealing with teacher tenure and dismissal are Education Code sections 44929.21 ("teacher tenure statute"); 44934, 44938(b)(1) and (2) and 44944 ("dismissal statutes"); and 44955, the layoff statute, which the trial court identified as "Last-in-First Out ('LIFO')."
The students claimed that the challenged statutes violate the students' fundamental right to equality of education guaranteed by the California Constitution by adversely impacting the quality of education received by the students. The trial court agreed. Specifically it held that "the [c]hallenged [s]tatutes 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." As such, to be constitutional the State was required to prove a "compelling interest" which justifies the challenged statutes and that the distinctions drawn by the laws "are necessary to further their purpose." The trial court in its tentative ruling held the State was unable to make this showing with regard to all of the challenged statutes.
With regard to the teacher tenure statute, the trial court found that both teachers and students were disadvantaged by this statute for no cognizable reason and that the less than two-year statutorily mandated time-frame does not provide nearly enough time to make an informed decision regarding teacher tenure. The trial court focused on the fact that teachers must be notified of their nonreelection by March 15 of their second year, which is less than two (2) years to determine qualifications for tenure. The trial court determined this requirement causes school districts to reelect teachers who, if given more time and evaluation, would not be reelected. Evidence was admitted during the trial that California is one of only five states with a probationary period of two years or less.
The students argued that the dismissal statutes make it too time consuming and burdensome to dismiss grossly ineffective teachers and many teachers are left in the classroom because "school officials do not want to go through the time and expense to investigate and prosecute these cases." While explaining that there is no question "teachers should be afforded reasonable due process when their dismissals are sought[,]" the trial court ultimately concluded that the current system required by the Dismissal statutes was too "complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient, yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory."
With regard to this statute, the trial court noted that with few exceptions, teachers must be laid off by seniority, with the most junior teachers being laid off first. There is no exception to this rule for teacher effectiveness and the court explained that a school district would be required to layoff a more junior gifted teacher while retaining a more senior grossly ineffective teacher. The trial court found this layoff system incompatible with constitutional requirements.
What This Means to You
The trial court’s tentative decision, once made a final judgment, would issue injunctions barring the statutes as unconstitutional. However, the trial court also announced its intention to stay those injunctions pending appeal. This means the current statutory discipline, tenure, and layoff processes likely remain in effect throughout the appellate process. We will closely monitor this case and report on any developments.