California Governor Gerry Brown has appealed a state judge’s horrendous ruling that threw out teacher job protection laws on the ground that they deprived students of their constitutional rights. In a one-page appeal filed yesterday, Brown and California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris argued that a decision of such breadth should be made by a higher court, and that the trial court had declined a request by the governor and attorney general “to provide a detailed statement of the factual and legal bases for its ruling.”
“Changes of this magnitude, as a matter of law and policy, require appellate review,” the appeal said of the case, Vergara v. California. The notice of appeal was filed one day after the judge in the case, Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court, issued his final ruling.
The decision threw out the state’s tenure process for K-12 teachers. It also eliminated state-mandated regulations that made seniority the primary factor in deciding which teachers to lay off. Treu accepted the argument of plaintiffs that these rules resulted in a lower-quality teacher work force, damaging the education of students, especially low-income or minority students. In a series of posts back in June (here, here, and here) I argued that the decision would not “have a direct impact on higher education,” but I cited numerous commentators who questioned its legal standing and logic. Indeed, UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff called the decision “a B- student’s opinion.”
As Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik noted at the time,
Among the remarkable features of Judge Treu’s ruling is the absence of any understanding of how to provide better teachers to students more consistently, or even how to measure quality. He seems to think it’s a simple matter of pointing at “bad” teachers and running them out the door. . . . Eviscerating the due process protection of teachers on the job won’t guarantee quality; it will only give administrators more leeway to harass or promote teachers for any reasons they choose.
Tom Torlakson, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, requested that Attorney General Harris file the appeal. “The people who dedicate their lives to the teaching profession deserve our admiration and support. Instead, this ruling lays the failings of our education system at their feet,” Torlakson said. “Its vagueness provides no guidance about how the Legislature could successfully alter the challenged statutes to satisfy the Court.”
“We do not fault doctors when emergency rooms are full,” Torlakson continued. “We do not criticize the firefighters whose supply of water runs dry. Yet while we crowd our classrooms and fail to properly equip them with adequate resources, those who filed and support this case shamelessly seek to blame teachers who step forward every day to make a difference for our children.” The court’s ruling “is not supported by the facts or the law,” Torlakson concluded.
Jim Finberg, a San Francisco-based attorney who is representing the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, said the unions would also be filing an appeal. He calculated the end of the 60-day deadline for appeals as Monday, October 27. “We have good grounds on appeal that the California equal protection law does not require the invalidation of these provisions of the California Education Code,” Finberg said, referring to provisions relating to when teachers are offered tenure, how teacher layoffs are handled and other employment matters.
“This decision fails to recognize the benefits to society provided by the challenged statutes, including the ability to recruit and retain educators, promoting teaching as a life-long career, the stability they bring to district employment decisions in layoff and other situations, and the basic due process they provide that allows teachers to speak up on behalf of their students,” said California Teachers Association President Dean E. Vogel. “No link was shown between these statutes and the hiring or retention of ineffective teachers, or in the assignment of ineffective teachers to particular schools. On the contrary, the evidence showed that school districts have tremendous latitude in hiring and in assignment, and that in fact, underperforming teachers are remediated or removed from their positions frequently using the existing statutes. Simply put, the judge has ruled on faulty logic.”
“This ruling says that education reform should be driven by how we fire teachers,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. “We think that completely misses the boat about what needs to happen in school.”
“In ignoring all the real problems of public education, this is simply an anti-union attack masquerading as a civil rights issue,” added Pechthalt. “The central problems we face each day in the classroom are inadequate funding, poverty, lack of decent jobs in the communities surrounding our schools, and high turnover among younger teachers due to the pressures of those problems—none of which is addressed by the ruling in this case. This decision will only reinforce the perception among idealistic young people that well-funded enemies of public education are undermining respect and support for teachers. This will make it harder to attract and retain young teachers.”
The case was filed by Silicon Valley billionaire David Welch, who founded the group known as Students Matter to pursue the case on behalf of the nine students, including Beatriz Vergara, a high school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District who is the first plaintiff named in the lawsuit. Students Matter hired New York and Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Theodore J. Boutrous to make the case.
In July, two different groups filed lawsuits in New York State modeled on Vergara aimed at eliminating due process rights for teachers (the state’s attorney general is moving to consolidate the two suits). Many of the same players from the Vergara lawsuit are involved in the New York lawsuit, including Welch. Perhaps the most well-known person participating in the New York lawsuits is Campbell Brown, the former news reporter-turned-head of the Partnership for Educational Justice. She recently had a memorable appearance on The Colbert Report; the Washington Post did some eye-opening fact checking of her claims; and Esquire wittily asked (and answered) the question, “Who the Fck is Campbell Brown?” Recently, David Boies, the star trial lawyer who helped lead the legal charge that overturned California’s same-sex marriage ban, was named chairman of Brown’s group.