Nine students ages 7 to 15, including Kate Elliott, 15, of San Carlos and the Sequoia Union High School District, had their day in court last week before a Los Angeles judge and came away with a victory. With the plaintiffs arguing that education quality can be linked to race and wealth, and citing low teacher dismissal rates and legal precedents to show the persistence in California of issues around unequal access to quality education, the court decided for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California.
Judge Rolf M. Treu, of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, decided on June 10 that tenure rules, which allow teachers to get lifetime job protection after just 18 months, were unconstitutional because they allow ineffective teachers to stay in the system. He suspended the decision pending an appeal by the state.
In their May 2012 complaint, lawyers for the nine students note California's national rankings of 46 among the 50 states in fourth-grade reading and 47 in eighth-grade math. "California's public schools are failing the very children whose interests they are meant to serve," they say. The legal team was from Students Matter, a nonprofit founded by Atherton resident and entrepreneur David Welch.
Along with the state and state Department of Education, the defendants included school districts in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Jose. Among the points made in the complaint:
■ Many states, California not included, have methods for evaluating teachers that are based on "objective evidence" of student growth.
■ In "certain districts," teachers from the bottom quartile of teacher performance are two times to three times more likely to be teaching students of color than is true among their white and Asian peers, a situation that widens the achievement gap "that education is supposed to eliminate."
■ The dismissal rate for unprofessional or unsatisfactory performance is 8 percent in the private sector, 1 percent in other California public agencies, and 0.002 percent among public school teachers.
■ Since race and wealth are shown to correlate to education quality, the lawyers argue, the tenure rules make education quality "a function of the wealth of the children's parents and neighbors."