In a victory for teacher unions, a divided California Supreme Court decided Monday to let the state's teacher tenure law stand.
The high court decided 4-3 not to review a lower court ruling that upheld tenure and other job protections for teachers. That ruling came in a lawsuit by a group of students who claimed that incompetent teachers were almost impossible to fire because of tenure laws and that schools in poor neighborhoods were dumping grounds for bad teachers.
The case was closely watched around the country and highlighted tensions between teacher unions, school leaders, lawmakers and well-funded education reform groups over whether policies like tenure and firing teachers with the least seniority keep ineffective instructors in the classroom.
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Dozens of states have moved in recent years to get rid of such protections or raise the standards for obtaining them.
Associate Justice Goodwin Liu voted for the California Supreme Court to take up the case, saying it affected millions of students statewide and presented a significant legal issue that the lower court likely got wrong.
"As the state's highest court, we owe the plaintiffs in this case, as well as schoolchildren throughout California, our transparent and reasoned judgment on whether the challenged statutes deprive a significant subset of students of their fundamental right to education and violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws," he said.
Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar echoed those concerns in a separate dissent.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge sided with the students in a 2014 ruling that threatened to shake up the state's public school system, which teaches more than 6 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
In striking down several laws regarding tenure, seniority and other protections, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said the harm inflicted on students by incompetent teachers "shocks the conscience." Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, appealed the ruling, and an appeals court overturned that decision in April, saying the students had failed to show California's hiring and firing rules were unconstitutional.
Justice Roger Boren, who presided over the 2nd District Court of Appeal, wrote in the 3-0 opinion that some principals get rid of highly ineffective teachers by sending them to low-income schools, but those decisions have nothing to do with the teacher tenure law.
Teachers have long argued that tenure protects them from being fired on a whim, preserves academic freedom and helps attract talented people to a profession that doesn't pay well.
"I hope this decision closes the book on the flawed and divisive argument that links educators' workplace protections with student disadvantage," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. "It is now well past time that we move beyond damaging lawsuits like Vergara that demonize educators and begin to work with teachers to address the real issues caused by the massive underinvestment in public education in this country. "
The Vergara v. State of California lawsuit, including Beatriz Vergara among the public school student plaintiffs, was backed by Students Matter, a nonprofit group founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch. Welch assembled a high-profile legal team including Theodore Boutrous, who successfully fought to overturn California's gay-marriage ban.
Boutrous said additional lawsuits in state and federal court challenging the teacher tenure law were possible. Welch said he was hopeful the legislature would take up the issue.
"While we are disappointed in the Supreme Court's decision to not grant review, we are grateful to the courts for shining a much-needed spotlight on these shameful laws and the enormous harm they inflict on thousands of children every year," Welch said in a statement.
Assemblyman Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley, said the court's decision was disappointing and that legislators needed to act to "stop protecting bad policies that deprive low-income and minority students of a good education."