As plaintiffs in the Vergara v. California lawsuit called their final witnesses Wednesday, the first chapter of the high profile case came to a close. Court proceedings for the twenty-day trial began January 27 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles, bringing contentious issues within education to the forefront of local and national discussion. The plaintiffs, fifteen-year-old Beatriz Vergara and eight other public school students supported by the non-profit organization Students Matter, aim to challenge teacher tenure and seniority protections in California public schools. The plaintiffs argue that California’s methods of hiring and firing teachers negatively impact students, violate their right to a good education provided under the California constitution, and disproportionately impact low-income and minority students. The defendants, which include the State of California, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the California Teachers' Association (CTA), and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), claim these procedures are necessary to protect current teachers and attract new teachers to an often challenging and under-paid profession.
At the heart of the trial are California statues that the plaintiffs claim make it impossibly difficult to fire ineffective teachers, while simultaneously inhibiting schools from properly supporting new teachers. California law requires administrators to grant or deny a teacher permanent employment status after only eighteen months of teaching. The plaintiffs also argue that the dismissal procedures required to fire bad, ineffective teachers can take years and cost millions of dollars, discouraging principles of already underfunded schools from ever beginning the process in the first place. Additionally, the “Last-In, First-Out” policy, which protects teachers with seniority during layoffs and budget cuts, forces schools to lay off new teachers and retain senior teachers, regardless of the teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom.
The California Teachers Association claims the case puts teachers’ rights on trial and the lawsuit’s misguided criticisms do not lead to positive, feasible solutions. In fact, the CTA has called the case, “Th[e] most recent shenanigan by corporate special interests and billionaires to push their education agenda on California public schools...resulting in a waste of taxpayer dollars and time”.
Along with the CTA, the California Federation of Teachers also disputes the lawsuit’s core arguments, claiming tenure and other teacher benefits serve to attract and retain a professional, developed teaching force rather than “a revolving door of educators”. LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer has stated that the courtroom is not a place to argue education policy, supporting the popular claim that the Vergara suit aims to bypass legislators regarding the issue of education.
In addition to the fight playing out in the courtroom, the roles of the media and money have added a unique dimension to this case. The non-profit organization supporting the plaintiffs, Students Matter, is founded and funded by David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Welch founded the organization in 2010 with the goal of “sponsoring impact litigation to promote access to quality public education”. Vergara v. California is the organization’s first and only case. To litigate the case, Welch hired Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher with Theodore Boutrous and Ted Olson serving as co-counsel for the suit. Boutrous has argued famous cases such as the Wal-Mart discrimination suit and Prop 8, while Olson argued the Bush v. Gore presidential election case for Bush. Student Matter’s team is rounded out by the communications firm Griffin|Schien, whose expertise has received credit for the national attention the case is receiving. As detailed in the Hechinger Report, Student Matter’s media blitz has included daily emails and announcements to media outlets throughout the trial, suggested Twitter phrases and hashtags about the case, news conferences, and a series of Op-Ed articles written by Welch himself.
In the midst of courtroom drama, a heavily funded media campaign, and name-calling and accusations from both sides, it seems the Vergara trial is yet another example of students getting lost in the education debate. Though the students of the Vergara case served as witnesses, their testimony was neither central to the trial nor was it shocking to those in the education world. Describing the all-too-familiar story of bad teachers, unproductive learning environments, and wasted educational opportunities, the students’ stories detailed the conditions of students all over the country.
Though the Vergara case has been referred to as the students’ day in court, in the midst of money, media, and special interests on both sides, it seems students have again been denied a voice in necessary education reforms. While the plaintiffs may be correct in claiming policies designed to protect teachers often negatively impact students and the defendants may be correct in their beliefs that education policy should not be debated in the courts, children are still sitting in underfunded, poorly staffed, uninspiring classrooms. As the Vergara case could have powerful, lasting impacts across the country, America’s children deserve better. Special interests, teachers unions, and school districts cannot decide education policy in a court of law. Instead, policy must come from conversations, open debates, and collaboration between educators, administrators, legislators, parents, and most importantly, students. Though the Vergara students may have had their days in court, as students all around the country must spend every day in the classroom, the goal, rather than winning a courtroom or public opinion battle, should be improving the education students receive while there.
The image featured is from Neon Tommy’s Flickr. No alterations have been made. From left: Julia Macias, Beatriz Vergara, Elizabeth Vergara, and Kate Eliot watch as counsel Theodore Boutrous addresses the media in early February.