Landmark court decision puts students' needs first


"Being a kid in the California system right now is a lot like the lottery," says Julia Macias, a ninth grader who lives in California's San Fernando Valley. "You might get an amazing teacher one year and then a not so amazing teacher and you see your scores are reflected upon that."

Julia is a dedicated student with dreams to one day attend Harvard University. She loves to read and has a passion for science. Her hard work has earned her a spot on the honor roll, but Julia wasn't always getting the most out of class.

"There was a point in my elementary school where I did have a few ineffective teachers," Julia explains. "It was definitely scary when I figured out that I wasn't learning because it took a lot of courage to go to my parents and tell them."

Julia told her dad, Joe Macias, about her struggles with math in her second grade class. Concerned about his daughter's eroding confidence in school, Joe and his wife decided to go to the school to meet with the teacher, where they were told that their daughter just wasn't good at math and advised to have her tested for a learning disability. Joe and his wife went back to observe the class and found that the teacher was unprepared and unorganized. They switched Julia to a different class, where she flourished. 

Julia Macias

"She's coming home excited doing her work," says Joe. "And I thought what can you attribute that to because this is the same kid. But the settings changed. Different teacher."

The Macias' experience with ineffective teachers led them to join eight other students and become part of the landmark Vergara v. California lawsuit that challenged teacher job protections. 

The case took on labor statutes that make it difficult to get rid of underperforming teachers, including the permanent employment statute, which gives a teacher tenure after just 16 months on the job. It also took on dismissal statutes which make firing a low performing teacher almost impossible and the last-in, first-out rule which forces districts to lay off teachers based on seniority, not performance. 

"In California, the teacher tenure system is really an outlier among various states in the nation," says Joshua Lipshutz, an attorney with Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher in San Francisco, California who argued on behalf on the Vergara plaintiffs. "Most states have a tenure period of three to five years and a few states don't have tenure at all."

According to expert testimony, only 2.2 teachers are dismissed each year on average out of 275,000 who are currently teaching in the state. The process can take anywhere from two to 10 years and can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. While only about two percent of California's teachers have been determined to be ineffective, their presence can cause appreciable damage to their students' future.

study conducted by Harvard professors Raj Chetty and John Friedman and Columbia professor Jonah Rockoff showed that students assigned to an ineffective teacher can lose over a year of learning and an estimated $1.4 million in lifetime earnings as a result of that single teacher.

In a ruling delivered on June 10, 2014, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu found in favor of the plaintiffs and struck down the state's tenure laws. In his 16-page decision, Treu wrote that the challenged statutes "disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students" and that the evidence "shocks the conscience." 

The California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association, both defendants in the case, denounced the verdict and vowed to appeal the decision. Appellate arguments are expected to be heard later this year. 

Union representatives argue that the court's decision will hurt teachers by removing an important safeguard against arbitrary firings and that the focus on tenure will not help teachers improve in the classroom. They say the decision will only work to exacerbate education problems in the state.

Gabriela Ibarra

"I'm tenured right now but if I break the law or if I'm acting inappropriately I can still be dismissed. It's not a guarantee for life," says Gabriela Ibarra, a fifth grade teacher in Los Angeles and a member of the California Federation of teachers. "Taking our rights away doesn't help us be better at what we're doing. It's just putting a negative image to everybody else that we're not doing our job properly."

But the Vergara case isn't about taking away a teacher's right to tenure—it merely seeks to redefine the period of time before a teacher is granted tenure. Nor is there any system in the United States that relies solely on test scores to evaluate a teacher's value in the classroom. Many of the teachers used as examples of poor performance in the Vergara case displayed numerous indicators of incompetence that did not rely on student performance.

"Throughout the entire case we had lots of teachers who came out to support us," says Lipshutz. "[They] really explained both to the public and to the court that having ineffective teachers in their schools and in their midst is terrible for them and terrible for the profession."

As the case makes it way through the appeals process, it has already prompted advocacy groups in other states to take action. Last month, a group of families filed a similar lawsuit in New York and cases are expected to be filed in Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho and Kansas.  

Though it could take years for a final ruling, Julia Macias is busy focusing on her future. 

"I do have a goal of making kids aware that they can and do have the ability to succeed in life with the right type of education," says Julia. "I find it very important to have that goal heard and my voice heard." 

Reason Foundation is a partner in National School Week, an annual event that draws attention to increasing educational options for K-12 students and their parents. For more information on resources and activities, including more than 10,000 events taking place nationwide between January 25-31, go here now.

About 7 minutes.

Produced by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Garcia, Tracy Oppenheimer, and Paul Detrick. Lipshutz interview by Tracy Oppenheimer. Music by Podington Bear.  

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