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In Vergara, Low-Income Students Pay … One Way or Another

Article originally appeared on The Brookings Institution

In April, the California Court of Appeal overturned the trial court’s ruling in Vergara v. California, in which a group of families had challenged the constitutionality of state laws governing teacher tenure. (California state law automatically grants tenure to teachers after sixteen months, provides extra due process protections to teachers over and above those available to other state workers, and requires schools to use seniority rather than competency in layoff decisions.) The Court of Appeal acknowledged that the challenged statutes increase the number of ineffective teachers in California schools and that low-income and minority students in California are disproportionately taught by less effective teachers. Yet the court reasoned that it is the administrative decisions of district leaders—rather than the challenged statutes—which bear the ultimate responsibility for how teachers are distributed across the state.

However, the Court of Appeal failed to grasp the degree to which the tenure laws and the teacher labor market constrain districts’ choices. Even if local personnel policies might partially buffer the impact on low-income children by re-assigning ineffective teachers and paying effective teachers to take their place, such salary incentives are expensive (with the costs being borne disproportionately by schools serving low-income children) and have been only partially effective where they have been tried. When state law essentially guarantees public employment for ineffective teachers in California, low-income families pay one way or another—either in the form of salary incentives to retain and redistribute effective teachers, reductions in other services required to pay for those salary incentives, or because such policies usually fail to completely offset the burden, in terms of the lowered achievement of their children....

Read more at The Brookings Institution.