Calif. Appeals Judges Jump in During Vergara Arguments, Both Sides Predicting Victory
Before the deputy attorney general could even finish a single statement, the justices of the 2nd District Court of Appeals who were hearing a significant education case on Thursday immediately started asking questions. How do you determine if a teacher is "grossly ineffective"? Is there evidence of discrimination? What will be the impact on the state?
For approximately 90 minutes on Thursday morning, the three justices of the California Court of Appeals listened to arguments in the landmark Vergara v. California lawsuit, which could have far-reaching implications for the public school system. In 2012, nine students from various parts of California filed this lawsuit, challenging five specific state laws pertaining to teacher tenure, dismissal procedures, and layoff laws.
Throughout eight weeks of testimony in 2014 from over 50 witnesses, the students recounted their experiences with incompetent teachers who were assigned to them because of their lower-income school districts and ethnic backgrounds. Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled in favor of the students, stating that the evidence of ineffective teaching "shocks the conscience" and that the laws disproportionately affect poor and minority students.
The courtroom in downtown LA, which seats 77 people, was filled to capacity on Thursday, with additional viewers watching from an overflow room. Elizabeth Vergara, who has since graduated, and four other defendants sat in the front row, while the lead plaintiff, Beatriz, attended school.
Shortly after the arguments began, Presiding Justice Roger W. Boren acknowledged the audience and remarked, "Anyone in this room has had a bad teacher at some time."
Both sides of the case believed that the questions posed by the three justices favored their arguments. Consequently, both sides held news conferences and telephone conferences in the hours following the hearing.
"I am thrilled, it’s a momentous day for California students," said attorney Michael Rubin, who represented the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers. "I am confident that the justices comprehended the questions and why tenure benefits teachers. I believe they can see why this trial judge exceeded his authority."
On behalf of the students, attorney Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. expressed his belief that the judges intend to uphold the ruling. "We successfully conveyed the dangers of these laws and how they deprive thousands of California children of the quality education they deserve," he stated.
During the arguments, both attorneys referenced relevant cases involving prisoners, home building, and voting rights. They also presented statistics to support their respective cases.
Rubin highlighted that black students are 43 percent and Latino students are 68 percent more likely to have underperforming teachers. Additionally, he contended, "Charter schools in California do not have better performance than other schools," despite their exemption from tenure laws.
Boutrous claimed that the tenure system costs the state $2.1 million annually in unnecessary expenses. He also pointed out that even former LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy testified that tenure should be granted after three to five years instead of the current two.
Both sides expressed their readiness to appeal the case if the judges rule against them. The judges have a 90-day deadline to deliver their ruling, so a decision should be made by the end of May.
"I am eager to argue this in front of the full California Supreme Court because we incorporated some of their previous decisions, which favored education, into our arguments," Boutrous remarked.
However, Rubin asserted, "The California Supreme Court will also recognize that this case lacks merit. These statutes will not be struck down anytime soon."
Also present in the audience was a school board member from Mountain View Whisman School District, where his two children attend school. Gregory Coladonato, who paid for his own travel from the district headquarters of Google, which has a 40 percent English learner population, supported the lower court’s decision. He believed that it would benefit children and planned to attend a school board meeting that evening.
"The implications of this case are historic; it could have a tremendous impact on the children of California," Coladonato said. "It could provide our superintendent with greater flexibility to ensure that the highest quality teachers are teaching our students."
One of the student plaintiffs, Brandon DeBose Jr., expressed that his testimony two years ago was brought to his mind. He shared that while some of his teachers were wonderful, there were also those who discouraged him and his fellow students, claiming that they would never achieve anything. Reflecting on his experiences, DeBose now firmly believes that every student, regardless of their location, deserves exceptional teachers. He sees this lawsuit as a powerful message to students across Inglewood and Oakland that they are important and their education matters.
This article is published in collaboration with LA School Report.