Will Vergara v. California one day be looked upon as the groundbreaking ruling for education ruling akin to Brown v. Board of Education?
The case was brought by nine public school students who charged that state laws forced districts to give tenure to teachers regardless of whether they can do the job, creating a system in which it is virtually impossible to fire even the most incompetent instructors.
The recent ruling of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu has been almost universally hailed as a blow to public-school teachers that has national implications. Siding with the plaintiffs, Treu wrote in his blistering 16-page decision: "The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience."
He added: "All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child's in-school education experience. All sides also agree that grossly ineffective teachers substantially undermine the ability of that child to succeed in school."
Evidence presented in the case concluded that "a single year in a classroom with a grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom."
Treu found the job security laws for teachers unconstitutional because they harmed predominantly low-income, minority students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom.
Treu ruled that quality education is just as important as access to education. Treu's decision, if it stands, would end the process of laying off teachers based solely on when they were hired. It also would strip them of extra job safeguards not enjoyed by other school or state employees. And it would eliminate the current tenure process, under which instructors are either fired or win strong job security about 18 months after they start teaching.
Specifically, Treu found it unconstitutional that tenure requirements for teachers are too easy to achieve; that the existing seniority system that removes young teachers is harmful to quality education; and that it's too difficult to remove grossly ineffectual teachers.
This ruling will generate a plethora of appeals, but once the dust settles, what will be the state of California's public education? Though the answer to such questions will most likely be years in the making, Treu's ruling has loosened the granite of immobility that encased the power of the teacher's union.
Assuming for the moment that Treu's ruling is upheld, the effect will transform California and possibly the nation. Moreover, efforts to change the laws legislatively will most likely be under stricter scrutiny by the courts.
Obtaining tenure which leads to strong job security within 18 months is beyond the comprehension of most reasonable people. Striking down extremely favorable tenure requirements for teachers remains the low-hanging fruit in this dilemma.
But are egregious tenure polices tantamount to a poor education that rivals the separate-but-equal policies that the Brown ruling struck down in 1954? Treu cites one witness in his decision who believes that perhaps 1 to 3 percent of California's 400,000 teachers are grossly ineffective. If those numbers are accurate, do they support the thesis that the current structure is an impediment to overall student achievement?
The subtext of this ruling may be more political than legal in that it demonstrates the most effective way to confront the teachers unions. Students Matter, a Silicon Valley organization founded by wealthy entrepreneur David Welch, financed the plaintiff's legal representation.
When one peels back the arguments that hearken on the history of inequality for students of color, one finds a well-heeled organization presenting the arguments before a sympathetic court.
This observation does not delegitimize Welch's crusade; maybe he is to education in the 21st century what John Brown was to the cause of the abolitionist movement in the 19th.
This is the first round of a battle that is certain to go the distance. I just hope student equity and achievement are not simply watchwords but a commitment to change the status quo where it is truly warranted.
Byron Williams is a contributing columnist. Contact him at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.