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Judge: California Tenure Laws are Unconstitutional


On June 10, 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu issued a decision in the matter of Vergara v. California. In the landmark decision, Judge Treu declared certain portions of California law unconstitutional, particularly the statues mandating procedures for hiring and firing public school teachers. Specifically, the court's decision struck down five statutes of the California Education Code (Cal. Educ. Code sections: 44929.21 (b), 44934, 44938 (b) (1) and (2), 44944, and 44955 ) as unconstitutional.

Enforcement of the decision is stayed pending review on appeal. As a result, the decision has no immediate (real-world) impact on school districts. For now, California school districts are legally obligated to follow the existing procedures for firing and hiring public school teachers.

The case will be appealed to the California Court of Appeal and could potentially be heard by the California and United States Supreme Court. If the decision is upheld by the Court of Appeal, there will be significant changes to the current system as the state and school district will scramble to re-invent itself with reasonable protections for teacher tenure and seniority-based layoff laws.

The plaintiffs are nine public school students, through their guardians ad litem, including 13 year old, Los Angeles Unified School District student, Beatriz Vergara and eight other public school students. The plaintiffs are supported by Students Matter, a national non-profit organization dedicated to sponsoring impact litigation to promote access to quality public education. According to their attorneys, the students challenged the current system of hiring and firing teachings on the grounds that the California constitution guarantees a fundamental right to education to every child. They argued that equal access to such an education is denied when grossly ineffective teachers are unable to be disciplined or fired without expensive and time-consuming procedural safeguards. The students' attorneys also argued that a child's education depends on a student's race and wealth where poor minority students in predominately poor Latino and African-American neighborhoods are taught by lower quality teachers. The suit targets the laws that protect these teachers.

The defendants in this lawsuit are the State of California, Gov. Jerry Brown, California's superintendent of public instruction, the state's Department of Education, the small Alum Rock Union School District, and L.A. Unified. An unnamed but very interested player in this case is one of the state's most powerful unions: the 300,000-member California Teachers Association. The teachers' association has vowed to continue to fight the lawsuit on appeal. Attorneys for the state department of education says that it can understand the concern that people have with just the system for laying off teachers or terminating ineffective teachers but very few teachers are actually ineffective. The decision arguably leaves some teachers feeling under-valued and used a scapegoat for the problems that exist within school districts. However, other teachers may see the decision as a positive step in the right direction towards ensuring higher quality teachers in public schools.

After a trial on the legal issues, the Court ultimately ruled "the current system required by the dismissal statutes to be so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory."

Proponents of the decision, hailed Vergara as a historic decision, which reaffirmed the right of every student to learn from effective teachers. In his decision, Judge Treu outlined evidence that he alleged "shocked the conscience" and required reform. Judge Treu pointed to evidence that, "1-3% of teachers in California are grossly ineffective," which means the number of these teachers "ranges from 2,750 to 8,250." Additionally, Judge Treu noted that "a single year in a classroom with grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom." For proponents of the decision, Vergara creates an opportunity for lawmakers, teachers, administrator, and community leaders to design a system that is beneficial for all parties involved.

Opponents of the decision allege Vergara circumvents the legislative process, undermines the teaching profession by striping teachers of their professional rights, and hurts students and schools. Opponents point to defense witness testimony, including superintendents, principals, teachers, and experts that the current law works well and ultimately benefits students in well-run school district throughout the state. Opponents claim Vergara will make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers and ignores research showing experience is a key factor in effective teaching. Staunch opponents to Vergara, such as the California Teachers Association, confirmed they will appeal the decision on behalf of students and educator. Furthermore, opponents point to the California legislature as the place for such policy decisions. Opponents have already called on the legislature to pass a bill (AB 215) that would streamline the dismissal process to keep students safe, while protecting the due process rights of educators. As of June 12, 2014, AB 215, unanimously passed the Senate and Assembly and is now headed to the governor of his signature. It's foreseeable that opponents will continue to lobby the legislature for similar reforms.

So what should school districts do while the appeal is pending? California school districts must continue to follow pre-Vergara California mandated firing and hiring procedures as the decision has no immediate impact on school districts. Judge Treu's decision instructed enforcement of his ruling is pending appellate review. The reform of education law will take effect only if the decision is upheld by the appellate courts. It may take several years before the decision is upheld or struck down.

If you have questions, please call Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin law firm at (562) 699-5500 to contact Deputy Attorney Richard Lam (email or Associate Attorney Christopher Cardinale (email


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Howard Blume and Stephen Ceasar, California teacher tenure and seniority system is struck down, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2014, available at (last accessed on June 13, 2014).

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Vergara v. California, No. BC484642 (Cal. Super. Ct. June 10, 2014).


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