The recent opinion in Vergara v. California deserves the attention it has attracted – and more. It has implications – some good – beyond the weakening of public sector unions. The plaintiff child has successfully attacked both the state’s system for tenuring and de-tenuring teachers and also the LIFO (last in, first out) statute that, in case of layoffs, protects teachers by time of service. If upheld on appeal, that would be a heap of change in the structure.
The court says the tenuring process is too short to allow good administrative judgment – effectively one year and a half. Thereafter, the de-tenuring process is torturous, very long, unpredictable – and expensive – to the district (the union covers teachers’ defense costs). Both practices are held to impair the quality of instruction and to do so in a manner uneven from child to child, thus violating their “fundamental right to equality of the educational experience.” These systemic wrongs are aggravated in districts serving low-income populations, intensifying the violation of equal protection. The seniority system (LIFO) has similar effects with the same conclusion. The case involves state law only. In striking down the tenure part of the system, Judge Rolf Treu emphasized these two sections of the state constitution:
Article I, Section 7(a): “A person may not be … denied equal protection of the law.”
Article IX, section (5): ‘The legislature shall provide for a system of common schools … supported in each district.”
He used both sources again in condemning LIFO. Favoring seniority, it is said, offends rationality and, like tenure, injures children without justification – especially the poor. Taken altogether, this is not equal protection.
I will address the two holdings in order, concentrating upon the tenure problem. As for the flaws in these statutes, Judge Treu relies on precedent construing the educational right of the child and the corresponding duties of the state. The (state) constitution “is the ultimate guarantee of a meaningful educational opportunity … to the student” who also enjoys a “fundamental right to basic equality in public education.” The court thus perceives the right, first, as one of peculiar weight and significance; hence, second, one that must be satisfied by education of basically similar and proper quality for children in similar circumstances.
The history of judicial response to this two-fold claim in the courts of California is instructive. Continue Reading →