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Education in the Courts: Vergara v. California

On March 4, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu rejected a motion to dismiss the Vergara v. California case and continue the state’s education trial where nine students are challenging the laws over teacher job protection. The suit, filed on behalf of Beatriz Vergara, a Los Angeles high school student, and eight other public school students, claims that the law protects poor-performing teachers assigned to working with low-income, minority children. The trial has resumed and will likely last for several months. Dean James Ryan answered some questions about the case and its relevance to education today.

What is the significance of case like Vergara reaching the courts? There has been a great deal of attention paid to this case, most of it centered on the wisdom and desirability of teacher-tenure laws, last-in-first-out rules, and dismissal procedures. These are weighty issues, to be sure, but the lawyer in me has been wondering why so little attention has been paid to the legal basis for this claim or to the very fact that these issues are being argued in a courtroom rather than in the legislature. The basic claim in this lawsuit is that California’s handling of teacher tenure, dismissal, and the like are resulting in grossly ineffective teachers being placed in classrooms; that these teachers are disproportionately affecting low-income and minority students; and that this violates the California Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. In other words, the claim is that California is violating its own constitution by not doing enough to ensure that all children have access to a highly qualified teacher.

This case represents a fascinating, and potentially pivotal, moment in the history of education litigation based on education rights and equal protection rights in state constitutions. Most of the cases relying on these rights have been about school funding, with the claim that unequal funding violates provisions in state constitutions that guarantee a right to an adequate education or provisions that promise equal protection. But there’s no reason in theory why those rights to an adequate or equal education have to be defined solely in terms of funding, and this case is a good example of how those rights might be used more broadly.

How and why do cases like this reach the courts? This case is a product of impatience and frustration with the political process, which is often the impetus for impact litigation like this. What is fascinating about this particular case is the upside down nature of the politics here. My guess is that many who support this lawsuit are not fans of courts ordering desegregation or courts ordering increased school funding, yet those cases also were a product of frustration with the political process — and the funding cases, as I have said, relied on the very same constitutional rights at issue in this litigation. The simple point, though still worth making, is that opinions about whether courts should interfere with the political process are often not based on some general principle about the role of courts versus the role of legislatures but instead reflect views about the merits of particular issues.

It is therefore worth recognizing that if this suit is successful and education rights in state constitutions are read broadly, who knows where cases like this might stop. This is a case about teachers. But surely poor and minority students have unequal access to all sorts of resources. One wonders if those who brought this suit are willing to press their equality claims to their logical conclusions and challenge the vast array of inequalities poor and minority children might experience in public school systems.

What is another example of a claim that could be made based on state constitutional rights to education or equal protection? It’s easy to envision a claim asserting a right to attend a socioeconomically diverse school.   Reams of research indicate that high-poverty schools suffer from numerous obstacles and difficulties that majority middle-income schools do not. Indeed, concentrated poverty may be the single best predictor of school performance and high-poverty schools remain the most difficult nut to crack in attempts to improve educational outcomes. The effects of attending a high-poverty school are not simply the aggregate effects of out-of-school poverty, either; the schools themselves disadvantage those who attend, regardless of their families’ socioeconomic status.

One can envision a lawsuit arguing that school district lines and attendance zones that result in high-poverty schools are denying poor children their right to equal educational opportunity. There is no reason in logic why such a claim could not be made and made quite strongly.  Indeed, the argument in Vergara is that California statutes regarding teachers make a child’s educational opportunity dependent on family income. That is also true with respect to school-district lines and attendance zones that cluster poor kids in high-poverty schools.  My guess, though it is just a guess, is that the coalition behind such a suit would look somewhat different from the coalition behind this particular suit.

Are courts the best place to address issues about teacher job protection like in Vergara case? Despite, or perhaps because of, my legal training, I don’t think courts are the first-best solution to addressing problems like this. I’m sure I am not alone in this view.

If history is any guide, courts are also not especially effective in producing fundamental change if political forces remain opposed to the court ruling. If this case is successful, whether it spurs genuine change will likely depend on whether there is already some appetite for change in the legislature. If there is, this case could be a catalyst for legislative action. If there is not, I would expect legislative recalcitrance.

Outside of legislative responses, it is important to remember that court cases can shine a spotlight on a pressing issue and help build momentum for change. It remains to be seen if that will happen here.

My only hope is that the conversation about this case be broadened a bit beyond just teachers to get at the heart of the legal claim: that poor and minority kids are being denied their constitutional right to equal educational opportunities. If that right is to be fulfilled, we are going to have to talk about more than just the unequal distribution of high-quality teachers. As mentioned, there are myriad ways in which poor and minority students get the short end of the stick in public education. If this lawsuit sparks a serious conversation about these issues, count me a fan of it.

Is it at all surprising that the judge didn’t dismiss this case? It is not that surprising at all. The judge would have had to conclude that plaintiffs did not even make a plausible claim, which would have been an extraordinary ruling at this point in the trial — before the defense put on any evidence. It would have been surprising if the judge dismissed the case before requiring the defense to respond. It doesn’t mean much, ultimately, as allowing the trial to continue doesn’t commit the judge to rule one way or the other. So: stay tuned. This could be big.