Like a time bomb, the court decision in Vergara v. California has been mostly dormant since the last election season ended in November 2014. But its explosive potential remains as large as ever.
Vergara, to refresh memories, is the ruling by a previously obscure Los Angeles County Superior Court judge that would essentially throw out California’s teacher tenure system and end rules making it harder and more expensive to fire teachers than other public employees.
This became one of many areas of disagreement in last fall’s politics, with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown opposing and appealing the decision by Judge Rolf M. Treu and Republican rival Neel Kashkari strongly endorsing it.
It was even more of an issue in the much tighter race for state schools superintendent, with incumbent and eventual winner Tom Torlakson insisting that while “No teacher is perfect, only a very few are not worthy of the job. School districts always have had the power to dismiss those who do not measure up.”
Challenger Marshall Tuck, former chief of a large charter schools company, responded that “Kids should not have to sue to get a quality education.” He decried the fact that teachers, who can get tenure after two years on the job, often are assured they’ll win that status within only 16 months of starting work, in his view not nearly long enough for them to prove they’re worthy of a lifetime sinecure.
But after the bombast of the campaign season, the controversy over Vergara – which can’t be acted on until and unless it survives all legal appeals – disappeared for about six months until state legislators took notice of its issues again.
In late spring, Republican lawmakers submitted several bills to short-circuit the court process by simply adopting most of Vergara’s basics as law. One proposal declared seniority could no longer be the sole factor determining who is laid off when times get tough.
Sponsoring Assemblywoman Catherine Baker of Dublin said using experience alone to decide who stays “constrains school districts from making decisions that are in the best interest of students and fair to teachers.”
Another measure from Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, now a Republican candidate for U.S. senator, would have added a year to the time a teacher needs to work before getting tenure. It would also have allowed districts to revoke tenure from teachers who repeatedly get negative performance reviews.
A third bill aimed to base teacher performance ratings in part on how students perform on standardized tests.
Democratic critics, many of whose campaigns are union-funded, claimed these changes would “crumble the central pillar of teacher job security.” They also charged the changes would deprive teachers of due process.
Since Democrats enjoy strong majorities in both legislative houses, these bills had little chance of passage and were deep-sixed quickly, not likely to be seen again until after the next statewide election, at the earliest.
This means the Vergara case, filed by nine students whose lawyers contended state firing and tenure rules deprive them of the Constitutional right to a solid education, will see its issues resolved by judges, not politicians.
Appeals by Brown and Torlakson are still active, and the state’s two largest teacher unions joined them in May, claiming Vergara “was never about students.” Said California Teachers Assn. President Dean Vogel, “During two months of trial, (the students’) attorneys failed to produce a single pupil who had ever been harmed by these (existing) laws, while teachers, principals, school board members, superintendents and nationally recognized policy experts offered dozens of examples of how these laws have helped…millions of California students.”
One essential claim of Vergara opponents is that easing tenure rules could render teachers subject to political threats. Said 15-year kindergarten teacher Erin Rosselli, current teacher of the year from Orange County, “These laws ensure I won’t be fired or laid off for arbitrary reasons or in retribution for standing up for kids…”
Lines are hard and resolute on both sides of the tenure/firing issue. And because most current state appellate judges were appointed by Democratic governors, it’s very likely the Vergara time bomb will be defused long before its intended explosive effect is ever felt.