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‘It Shocks the Conscience’

“Victory for students in California.”

That’s how the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California [1] case reacted to the news [2] that a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that long-held teacher protections violate students’ rights to an equal education.

Tuesday’s landmark ruling validates a growing belief that California’s public education system values teachers over students.

“The evidence is compelling,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu wrote in [3] his tentative ruling, in response to the plaintiffs’ argument that byzantine legal protections make it nearly impossible to fire ineffective teachers.

“Indeed, it shocks the conscience,” he wrote.

The plaintiffs said such policies have the most disparate impact on schools that serve poor and minority students, as bottom-rung teachers are more likely to end up [4] at high-poverty schools. Rolf agreed.

It’s a big win for Students Matter [5], a nonprofit founded by Silicon Valley business mogul David F. Welch [6] – and a group of California students who became the public face of the case.

And it strikes a major blow to the teachers union, which has fought to hang onto policies that grant teachers tenure after less than two years and mandate that the newest teachers are dismissed first during layoffs.

“Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” wrote Rolf.

The ruling doesn’t mean any policy changes will take place immediately – or whether they’ll happen at all. The decision will be placed on hold until an appellate court has a chance to review the ruling.

The defendants – the state and the California Teachers Association – have already said they would appeal if the judge didn’t rule in their favor.

San Diego Unified School Board Trustee Richard Barrera said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling. He testified as a witness in the trial, and told the court that current policies foster trust between teachers and principals, and ultimately benefit students by creating a more stable learning environment.

Barrera, who also leads the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said that he expects the case to ultimately wind up at the California Supreme Court.

“The expectation that a trial judge was going to determine public policy is absurd – and I don’t think this decision ultimately will affect policy.”

But the case does highlight a growing disillusionment with California’s public education system. The Vergara case, which might have once seemed like a whim of a powerful financier, has now taken a major step forward.

It also underscores teachers unions’ unwillingness to budge. In its closing brief [7], the defense argued the plaintiffs had failed to make their case because they we never able to prove who, exactly, are ineffective teachers.

Traditionally, teachers unions have resisted the idea that it’s possible to rate teachers’ effectiveness in a fair way. San Diego Unified is no different.

While districts like Los Angeles Unified moved toward including student test scores as a way to engage teacher effectiveness, San Diego Unified stayed put [8].

Creating a system whereby teachers are evaluated on their perceived effectiveness would erode trust between teachers and their principals, Barrera has said [9]. He’s also pointed to last-in-first-out layoff policies as part of the reason why San Diego Unified has improved student test scores in recent years.

But that argument didn’t persuade Rolf, who cited testimony from experts who said that ineffective teachers cost students over $1 million in earnings over the course of their lives.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy applauded the ruling, and said in a teleconference call that the single most important decision he makes as a superintendent is deciding who has the privilege to teach students. Current laws mean that students can be stuck with grossly ineffective teachers without a viable recourse, Deasy said.

Whatever teacher policies should replace the current ones – if new policies happen at all – is still a bit foggy, though.

But the Vergara plaintiffs and their supporters said Tuesday the decision was an important first step to dismantling the status quo.