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With Passionate Dissenters, CA Supreme Court Leaves Intact Teacher Due Process Laws and Rejects Constitutional Right to ‘Quality’ Education

August 29, 2016 by

In a closely watched case, and by a close vote, the California Supreme Court refused to find unconstitutional California’s teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoff statutes.  In Vergara v. State of California and the California Teachers Association, four justices voted to deny review of the Court of Appeal’s unanimous decision that the statutes do not violate students’ right to equal protection by causing them to endure “grossly ineffective” teachers.  Three justices voted to grant review.  The effect of the majority opinion is to leave intact the Education Code’s statutory scheme, and the Court of Appeal decision has been certified for publication so that it now can be cited as legal authority.

In a nutshell, the plaintiffs, nine students whose case was funded by Silicon entrepreneur David Welch, mounted a “facial challenge” to the Education Code; that is, they argued that the text of the statutes was unconstitutional, not that the statutes were applied unconstitutionally to any particular individual.  To that end, the plaintiffs sued to invalidate the tenure statute that allows teachers to attain permanent status after two years of probationary service, the dismissal statutes that provide a full evidentiary hearing whenever a school district seeks to dismiss a permanent teacher, and the layoff statute that requires a district to layoff teachers in inverse order of seniority unless it can demonstrate a special need to retain junior personnel with training and experience that a more senior employee does not have.  Judge Rolf Treu, a Pete Wilson appointee, declared the statutes unconstitutional.  The Court of Appeal reversed, finding that the evidence did not demonstrate that the statutes themselves caused minority and poor students more likely to be taught by grossly ineffective teachers.

Educators surely have a lot to celebrate with this Supreme Court victory.  But the fact that the decision was 4-3 is somewhat troubling, given the breakdown of the votes.  Justices Chin, Liu, and Cuellar voted to grant review.  Justices Cuellar and Liu are generally considered to be among the Court’s more liberal members, while Justice Chin is considered to be the most conservative.  Justice Liu and Cuellar each wrote passionate dissents, not only expressing  a desire to review the appellate decision, but also vehemently faulting the appellate court’s equal protection analysis and favoring Judge Treu’s evidentiary findings of unconstitutionality.

On the same day the Supreme Court denied review of Vergara, the same four-justice majority voted to deny review  in two consolidated cases alleging that public school children have a constitutional right to a public education of “some quality” and that the Legislature has violated the Constitution by failing to provide adequate funding for public schools.  In Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California and Robles-Wong and CTA (as Intervener and Appellant) v. State of California, a wide array of non-profits, guardians for minor public school students, several school districts, and CTA sued the State for injunctive and declaratory relief.  In a 2-1 decision, the First District Court of Appeal concluded that sections 1 and 5 of Article IX of the State Constitution “evince no constitutional mandate to an education of a particular standard of achievement or impose on the Legislature an affirmative duty to provide for a particular level of education expenditures.”  As in Vergara, the same three-justice minority voted to grant review, with Justices Liu and Cuellar again filing impassioned, dissenting opinions.  Adopting the voice of an advocate for the rights of low income and minority students who fail to meet proficiency standards or graduate from high school, Judge Cuellar minced no words: “It is especially important for California’s highest court to speak on this issue.”

The juxtaposition of these two cases is thought-provoking, especially for progressives.  After all, CTA is a plaintiff in one and a respondent/intervenor in the other; in Vergara, Laurence Tribe sided with appellants and Edwin Chemerinsky sided with respondents; and in both cases, two liberal justices and a conservative justice dissented.  CTA got it right: to ensure quality education for our children, we must not only provide adequate funding for schools, but we also must safeguard teachers’ rights to due process, job security, and dignity.  Both are means to the same end.



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