California Teacher Tenure Survives Landmark Bad-Schools Suit

  • Silicon Valley-backed case blame tenure law for failed schools
  • Appeals court reverses trial win by suit on behalf of students

The first U.S. court decision to take away lifetime job security for public school teachers was overturned on appeal in a ruling that found California’s tenure system doesn’t violate the constitutional rights of students.

In a case that’s drawn nationwide attention, a California appeals court reversed a 2014 ruling by a Los Angeles judge that the state’s tenure laws left low-income and minority students disproportionately stuck with “grossly” ineffective teachers and breached their fundamental right to equality in education.

“Although the statutes may lead to the hiring and retention of more ineffective teachers than a hypothetical alternative system would, the statutes do not address the assignment of teachers; instead, administrators -- not the statutes -- ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach,” the state appellate court in Los Angeles said Thursday.

The lawsuit was brought against the state by a group of nine students backed by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and attorneys from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, one of the country’s top law firms. It marked the first time advocates of education reform went to court, rather than to state lawmakers, to overhaul tenure laws they blame for the poor quality of instruction at public schools.

California’s two largest teachers unions joined the case to defend the existing statutes and argued the lawsuit was part of a broader effort to undermine organized labor. They contend smaller classrooms and adequate resources were more relevant to improving public education than attacking teachers.

“We think the California Court of Appeal is wrong, so our fight for California students isn’t over -- not even close,” David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who backed the students’ lawsuit, said in a statement. “We’re taking this case to the California Supreme Court, and we intend to win.”

Gates, Waltons

Billionaires including Microsoft Corp. co-founder and former Chairman Bill Gates, homebuilding and insurance entrepreneur Eli Broad and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Walton family have pushed for public schools to be run more like businesses. Charter schools, independent of local school districts and typically free of unionized teachers, have been one of their favorite causes.

The state of California, which defended the statutes’ constitutionality separately from the teacher unions, claimed during a two-month trial that tenure helps attract people to low-paid jobs in often-difficult work conditions and protects teachers from pressure by school boards when they teach controversial subjects.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garica, whose union represents 3 million members, called the ruling a win for students as well as educators.

“Now we must return to working on real solutions to ensure all of our students succeed,” she said. “Only when teachers, school boards, and administrators work together can we ensure that there is a great public school for every student.”

The case is California v. Vergara, B258589, California Court of Appeals, Second District (Los Angeles).

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