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California Appeals Court Reverses ‘Vergara’ Decision

California’s embattled public school teachers received good news Thursday in the form of a state appellate court reversal of the controversial Vergara v. California decision.

Bill Raden

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California’s embattled public school teachers received good news Thursday in the form of a state appellate court reversal of the controversial Vergara v. California decision. That potentially far-reaching 2014 verdict had declared unconstitutional nearly a century of state laws meant to protect California public school teachers from unfair firings.

Brought on behalf of nine California schoolchildren, Vergara had argued that the retention of “grossly ineffective” teachers through five due-process statutes had a disparate impact on poor and minority students and violated their civil rights under the California Constitution’s “equal protection” guarantee. The California Court of Appeals, Second Appellate District’s ruling unanimously rebuffed that argument.

Writing for the court, Presiding Justice Roger Boren said that the “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. … The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea.’”

Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, hailed the decision as a victory for teachers, who have increasingly found themselves vilified for historic social inequities or district failings in a “blame the teachers” narrative promoted by anti-public school and anti-union conservatives.

“We’re pleased by the unanimous decision of the appeals court,” Pechthalt told Capital & Main by phone. “The Vergara case was a major distraction and it didn’t deal with the real issues that confront public education in California. Right now we face a looming teacher-shortage crisis, so figuring out ways of how to fire more teachers is not what we need to talk about.”

The case had been sponsored by Students Matter, a Menlo Park nonprofit founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, and financed partly by L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad. The case was argued by the white-shoe law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

In a prepared statement released by Students Matter, lead counsel for the plaintiffs Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. criticized the ruling and called the reversal a “temporary setback.”

“The Court of Appeal’s decision mistakenly blames local school districts for the egregious constitutional violations students are suffering each and every day,” Boutrous declared, “but the mountain of evidence we put on at trial proved—beyond any reasonable dispute—that the irrational, arbitrary, and abominable laws at issue in this case shackle school districts and impose severe and irreparable harm on students.”

Charging that “the courts failed to safeguard students’ constitutional rights,” Students Matter’s David Welch vowed to now take the case to the California Supreme Court.

The 10-week Vergara trial had attracted national attention for, among other things, offering the bizarre spectacle of having two defendants — then-Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy and then-Oakland Unified School District superintendent Tony Smith — testify on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The case was seen as part of a series of major lawsuits against California teachers unions that included Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and that have been described as a “new front” in the efforts by neoliberal education-reform forces to wound labor and sidestep the state legislature in order to pry open L.A. and California public schools to market-based restructuring.

(Disclosure: The California Federation of Teachers and California Teachers Association are financial supporters of Capital & Main.)

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