Education Law Insights

California Court Finds Teacher Tenure, Layoff, and Dismissal Laws Unconstitutional

Posted by Brian Crowley on June 12, 2014

By Guest Blogger Amy Kosanovich Dickerson

School leaders across the country are buzzing about a California Superior Court’s recent tentative ruling that the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws violate the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. As can be seen in the analyses in the Chicago Tribune, Politico and Education Week, education and news groups are also speculating about the ruling’s significance for California and other states throughout the country.  Below is a brief summary of the decision and its potential implications for states across the country, including Illinois.

The Court’s Decision

In Vergara v. State of California, nine California public school students, supported by the group Students Matter, claimed that the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff statutes result in “grossly ineffective teachers” obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately employed in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students, in violation of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution. The court agreed with the students, finding that the statutes violate students’ fundamental rights to equal education “by adversely affecting the quality of education they are afforded by the state.” The court’s opinion references a significant amount of testimony presented at trial on these adverse effects, including testimony that 1-3% of teachers in California, or 2,750-8,250 teachers, are “grossly ineffective.”

In finding the state’s teacher tenure law unconstitutional, the court took particular issue with the fact that a California public school teacher may attain tenure in only two years, and that the tenure decision effectively must be made in the middle of the teacher’s second year under the law’s notice provision. The court found this short timeframe unfairly disadvantages both teachers and students, noting that two of the state’s own experts agreed that a three-to-five year probationary period would be a more beneficial time frame to make tenure decisions for both students and teachers.

The court also found that the state’s current teacher dismissal procedure is so complex, time consuming, and expensive that it effectively prohibits an effective, efficient, and fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher. The court cited evidence that the dismissal process for a teacher in California can take anywhere from two to ten years and cost $50,000 to $450,000, and that as a result, dismissals are “extremely rare” because administrators believe it to be “impossible” to dismiss a teacher under the current system. The court also relied on testimony that the Los Angeles Unified School District alone had 350 grossly ineffective teachers it wished to dismiss at the time of trial for whom the dismissal process had not yet been initiated.

Finally, the court ruled that the state’s teacher layoff procedures are unconstitutional due to layoff decisions being based solely on a teacher’s seniority without any consideration of a teacher’s classroom performance or evaluation ratings. While the court’s ruling calls for the challenged statutes to be enjoined from being enforced, the court stayed such injunctions until any appeals of the ruling are completed.

Insights for School Leaders, in California and Beyond

Throughout its opinion, the Court distinguished California’s current tenure and layoff laws from those in other states, suggesting that other states’ laws would not present the same problems found by the court. For example, the court cited evidence that California is one of only five states with a probationary period before a teacher is awarded tenure of two years or less. Thirty-two states have a three-year teacher probationary period, and nine states have a four-or five year period. Similarly, California is among only ten states that consider seniority as the sole factor or a required factor when deciding teacher layoffs. While twenty states provide that seniority may be considered among other factors, eighteen states and Washington, D.C. leave the layoff criteria to school district discretion, and two states provide that seniority cannot be considered.

Thus, it is possible that student groups in states with laws similar to California might succeed on similar challenges based on the reasoning of this case. In states with laws that differ considerably from California’s, however, it is less likely that the court’s reasoning would support a challenge to the current law. For example, the recent amendments to Illinois’ teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws by Senate Bill 7 and the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA) created numerous distinctions between Illinois’ and California’s laws. Namely, Illinois has a 4-year probationary period for teachers before they can be awarded tenure, and by September 1, 2016, teacher performance will be a factor in all tenure decisions for those teachers first employed by that date. Illinois also requires a teacher’s performance to be considered in a school district’s layoff decisions and has undergone changes to its teacher dismissal process that were intended to make the process more efficient.

In any event, there is no doubt that education leaders from across the country will be paying close attention to the outcome of any appeals filed in this case. And while the legal implications of the case may still be uncertain, this decision sends a powerful message about a growing trend of viewing policy on teacher employment decisions from the perspective of their impact on students.

Limits to Student Lawsuits Over Bad Grades in Illinois

Posted by Brian Crowley on August 22, 2012

Recent reports of a lawsuit (Bethards v. Carlock) by a 17-year-old California high school student, Bowen Bethards, against his school for the C+ he received in chemistry may make you wonder: How far would a lawsuit regarding grades go in Illinois?

The issue hasn’t come before an Illinois State court. But last year, a group of Franczek Radelet attorneys (Patricia Whitten, John Relias and myself) secured a victory for Evanston Township High School District 202 in a case suggesting limits to such a lawsuit in this jurisdiction.

In Zachary M. v. ETHS 202, a former ETHS student made similar claims to those made by Bethards, including that what he considered to be low grades were hurting his chances of getting into his college of choice. Zachary M. asked that, among other things, the court order ETHS to recalculate his grades, giving him more credit than his teachers originally decided he had earned.

A federal trial court here in Chicago agreed with ETHS that the court did not have the authority to order ETHS to recalculate the student’s grades. The court explained that courts are always reluctant to wade into the murky waters of such purely academic matters as grade calculation. The court noted the impropriety of attempting to go back and revise an entire high school academic record, which inherently would involve the court in subjective academic decisions that are entirely outside the jurisdiction of a federal court.

Of course, California may have its own rules and laws that would allow Bethards to bring his suit. But at least in Illinois, there is support for the claim that changing grades is the job of schools and teachers – not courts.