Blog: The Educated Reporter

Calif. Appeals Court Overturns ‘Vergara’ Ruling on Teacher Tenure

(Flickr/Woodley WonderWorks via Creative Commons)

As a regular feature, The Educated Reporter chooses a buzzword or phrase that You Need to Know (yes, this designation is highly subjective, but we’re giving it a shot). Send your Word on the Beat suggestions to

Word on the Beat: Vergara

What it means: Vergara v. California is a lawsuit challenging the state’s teacher tenure laws, initiated by the well-funded advocacy group Students Matter. The plaintiffs — arguing on behalf of the nine students who signed on to the suit – contended existing tenure policies were keeping the neediest kids from getting the most qualified teachers. In a controversial decision in 2014, a superior court judge said the tenure policies were unconstitutional — including “First In, First Out”, which might protect more senior employees from layoffs even if they had been rated less effective than newer teachers. But an appellate court overturned the ruling on Thursday:

“Plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students,” wrote Division Two Presiding Justice Roger W. Boren in the decision. “The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea.’”

The plaintiffs have said they will appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Why it matters: Vergara is considered a test case by parties on both sides of the contentious teacher tenure debate. The early success of the plaintiffs spurred a similar lawsuit to be filed in New York, and another in Minnesota on Thursday. The Partnership for Educational Justice – an advocacy group launched by former CNN News anchor Campbell Brown — is backing both suits. (Brown is also the founder of the education news site The 74.)

From the Alejandra Matos’ reporting for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Denise Specht, president of the the state teachers’ union, said the union has not decided if it will formally intervene in the [Minnesota] case, but said the current laws do not protect ineffective teachers.

“It doesn’t matter to the out-of-state groups behind this suit that Minnesota is facing a teacher shortage, nor that high-needs schools are trying to attract more senior teachers, nor the growing body of research showing disparities in income, health and opportunity drive academic inequality — not employment practices,” Specht said.

Who’s talking about it: Just about everyone in education circles — especially teachers — have been keeping close tabs on Vergara. But so have labor organizations, lawmakers, and presidential candidates.

Interestingly, the Vergara case wasn’t of much interest to California voters polled by the USC/Rossier School of Education in 2014. Six out of 10 poll respondents had little or no familiarity with the suit. However, of the respondents who were familiar with the case, 62 percent supported the judge’s decision, which overturned teacher tenure. After California’s teacher tenure law was explained to them, 61 percent of respondents agreed with a statement opposing it on the grounds that “it makes it extremely difficult to fire poorly performing teachers, so that many California schoolchildren, particularly those in economically challenged school districts, get stuck with poor teachers year after year.”

Outside of California, Vergara has spurred national conversations about teacher tenure policies, as well as questions of equity when it comes to how low-achieving schools are staffed and supported.

In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, veteran education journalist Sarah Carr made a compelling argument that improving the teaching profession, and as result, outcomes for the neediest students, has to be about more than tweaking tenure policies:

There’s a need for vigorous debate about the rules that Vergara targets. But as important as such policies can be, we’re wrong to let them monopolize the effort to improve American education. For too long in this country we have done too little to address two universal challenges: how to create teacher training and evaluation systems that will help the vast middle-tier of teachers improve and how better to support young teachers, particularly those working in high-poverty schools where attrition rates are sky high.

Want to know more? The Los Angeles Times’ education team has a trenchant overview of the case and what’s next for the plaintiffs. (Joy Resmovits was all over the ruling on Twitter Thursday, raising some smart questions and helping people understand the issues at stake.)  

For a close look at approaches to better supporting and retaining new teachers, take a look at a 2014 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education. And EWA was in Chicago last fall for a two-day seminar on teacher education. You’ll find write-ups from those sessions here. If you’re writing about teachers’ unions, check out our Story Lab on how to dig deep into the labor groups’ finances. And you’ll find the latest news, key coverage, and multimedia from EWA conferences at our Teacher Workforce Topics Page.