Teacher Permanency, Termination, and Layoff Statutes Remain Intact After the Court of Appeal Rejects the Trial Judge’s Decision in Vergara v. State of California

A decision was issued late yesterday by the Court of Appeal in a case that continues to highlight the political debate about the Education Code’s substantial protections for public school teachers.  Our firm reviewed the trial court’s decision in an Alert, saying the decision in favor of the plaintiffs was likely the first battle in a long war.  The second battle was a victory for the defendants, and the war (in the judicial branch, at least) will likely be decided by the California Supreme Court.

The lawsuit was brought by nine individual public school students against the State of California, sponsored by the Students Matter organization, alleging that teacher tenure and termination laws (including seniority-based layoffs) violate students’ constitutional rights.  They assert the negative effects of those laws, primarily the allegation that the statutes resulted in the retention of “grossly ineffective” teachers, disproportionately impacted certain students, such as low-income, minority students.  The plaintiffs also asserted the challenged statutes violate students’ fundamental interest in an education in California by negatively impacting students who are unlucky in being assigned to a grossly ineffective teacher.  The overarching claim was that the Education Code’s protections for teachers violated the students’ right to enjoy the “equal protection of the laws” under the California Constitution.

After an eight-week evidentiary hearing, a Superior Court judge issued a ruling declaring five sections of the Education Code unconstitutional and void.  The Superior Court decision was “stayed” pending the State of California’s appeal.  The California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers were involved as interveners.

From the outset, the Court of Appeal found that the plaintiffs below failed to show that the statutes “inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students.”  The Court emphasized that the plaintiffs “brought a facial equal protection challenge, meaning they challenged the statutes themselves, not how the statutes are implemented in particular school districts.”  Initially, the plaintiffs did sue three school districts along with the State, but ultimately opted to pursue a facial challenge of the statutes as opposed to specific instances of implementation.  In reversing the decision, the Court noted that local agencies, subject to conditions imposed through collective bargaining negotiations and agreements, make determinations regarding specific teacher assignments.  The Court repeatedly indicated that local administrative decisions implementing those laws could be the basis of a challenge, but that was not the challenge the plaintiffs opted to pursue.

In its review of the certificated layoff statutes, the Court observed that statutory exceptions allow a district to deviate from the seniority system, such as when the district demonstrates a specific need for personnel to teach a specific course of study and a junior teacher has special training and experience, or in circumstances where the district needs to maintain or achieve compliance with constitutional equal protection requirements.

The Court reviewed at length the evidence presented by both parties during the trial.  Despite this evidentiary record, the Court reviewed the questions of law de novo given that this is a facial constitutional challenge.  The Court clarified that a wholesale challenge to a statute alleging facial unconstitutionality would require plaintiffs to prove that any application of the challenged statutes to any person in any circumstance is unconstitutional.

With regard to the allegation that an unlucky subset of students were deprived of a fundamental right of education by being assigned to grossly ineffective teachers, the Court held that this was not an identifiable class of persons sufficient to maintain an equal protection challenge.  There was no pertinent common characteristic identified in the evidentiary record, and the Court rejected that the alleged harm suffered could be that common characteristic.

On the issue of the allegation that the challenged certificated statutory job protections disproportionately harmed poor and minority students, the Court remarked that the trial court bypassed a prerequisite question; specifically, “Did the challenged statutes cause low-income and minority students to be disproportionately assigned to grossly ineffective teachers?”  Here, the Court clarified that facial unconstitutionality is found when the constitutional violation is inevitable, not when it may arise from the actions of persons implementing the statute.  The Court noted that the evidence at trial “firmly demonstrated that staffing decisions, including teacher assignments, are made by administrators, and that the process is guided by teacher preference, district policies, and collective bargaining agreements.”  Ultimately, the Court emphasized that troubling patterns and problems were not inevitably caused by the challenged statutes, distinguishing the salient societal issues highlighted in the case as potential policy problems, but not as constitutional issues. Within minutes of the public announcement of the decision, Students Matter announced its intention to seek review of the decision by the California Supreme Court. Review by the Supreme Court is not automatic — the Court can deny review if it so chooses — but given the significant publicity surrounding this lawsuit, most expect the Court will grant review.

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