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Understanding Vergara v. California: What’s behind the case that is sparking a national education debate?

Source: Neon Tommy / CC Flickr

In Brief

Last Tuesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu made history by striking down five statutes in the California Education Code related to teacher tenure, dismissal, and seniority. The ruling has sparked a national discussion of teacher tenure, and generated another round of “Who’s to Blame?” regarding California’s achievement gap.

In this article, we summarize the Vergara case and explore the role tenure and “bad teachers” play in the growing gap between California’s high- and low-income students.

Who is Behind the Case?


The plaintiffs were nine students, including the named student Beatriz Vergara. A non-profit group called Students Matter organized the students. Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch founded and funds the organization, a fact highly publicized by the opposition.

High profile attorneys Theodore B. Olson, Theodore J. Boutrous (the two are famous for winning the case that overturned Proposition 8 (2008)), and Marcellus McRae represented the students.


The original named defendants of the case were the State of California and the State’s Department of Education, Governor Jerry Brown, and State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson. Both Brown and Torlakson have reputations as strong supporters of the teachers’ unions. Also named were the students’ three school districts: Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), and Alum Rock Union School District (ARUSD).

Shortly after the plaintiffs filed suit, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) (the state’s two main teachers’ unions) voluntarily joined the case as intervenors.

The Students’ Argument

  1. The California State Constitution and jurisprudence guarantee equal educational opportunity and quality.
  2. Bad teachers are costly to students’ academic gains and their lifetime achievements. Therefore, bad teachers prevent students from having equal educational opportunity.
  3. Students in low-income, predominantly minority schools have more bad teachers than students in high-income, predominantly white schools, due to systemic effects.
  4. Current tenure, dismissal, and seniority policies make it virtually impossible to dismiss bad teachers. Therefore, tenure and related statutes obstruct equal educational opportunity, thereby disproportionately depriving low-income, minority students of their Constitutional right to equal educational opportunity.

Getting Beyond the Rhetoric: How Much do “Bad Teachers” Contribute to Unequal Educations?

One of the most important things to recognize is that there is no consensus on how to define or identify a “bad teacher.” Leaving aside the egregious cases of abuse and neglect, it is a complicated undertaking to distinguish bad teachers from mediocre or great ones, and to develop bad teachers into better ones.

To determine teacher quality, we have traditionally relied on “paper” measures, like teacher certification, master’s degrees, or the number of college classes a teacher took in the subject he or she teaches. With a few exceptions, these paper measures do not appear to be consistently or causally associated with student achievement such as test scores or educational attainment.

While we lack a consensus on what measures can truly impact student achievement, it is definitively clear that at least by paper measures, teacher resources are unequally distributed across students.

While we lack a consensus on what measures can truly impact student achievement, it is definitively clear that at least by paper measures, teacher resources are unequally distributed across students.

Examining California school district data, researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California found that a larger percentage of students who qualified for free and reduced lunch was correlated with a higher percentage of teachers with a bachelor’s degree or less (and a correspondingly lower percentage of teachers with a master’s degree or more). Additionally, schools with higher percentages of students in poverty had fewer certified teachers and more teachers with two or less years of teaching experience. Hispanic/Latino and African-American students bear much higher burdens of poverty than White and Asian students, thus making the issue of unequal resources one of both income and race/ethnicity.

Analyzing nationwide data, researchers have also found that in addition to having less education and less experience, teachers in schools with more minority students and students in poverty are more likely to teach outside of their own field of training, a phenomena known as out-of-field teaching.

On almost all these measurable factors, the state’s teacher workforce is unevenly and unequally distributed. But as we mentioned before, the research is not clear that these measures impact student achievement. (Years of experience is an exception to the rule – as a teacher moves from one to two years of experience to three or more, their impact on student performance improves).

Recently, the sphere of teacher evaluation has moved toward measuring student achievement more directly by examining how much students’ test scores grow under their certain teachers – an approach called “value-added measures” (VAM). Using value-added measures in a quasi-experimental setting, researchers from Harvard and Columbia assessed that high value-add teachers are associated with better educational attainment and higher lifetime earnings. A random-assignment study in LAUSD showed that bad teachers can cost students the equivalent of 9.54 months of learning.

The case relied on this evidence to argue the importance of quality teaching, despite arguments from prominent education researchers about the shortcomings of VAM. One key point they make is that test score growth is not an effective or reliable measure of teacher performance. Students’ rates of learning are affected by prior years and previous teachers, so how much a student grows in one classroom is inherently influenced by other factors. Moreover, they argue that VAMs are unreliable over time and vary by statistical models.

There isn’t enough data or research on value-added measures to establish if teachers’ value-add varies significantly with the poverty status of their students.

Source: WoodleyWonderWorks / CC BY Flickr

What Else is Missing from the Debates?

While all sides agree that we should place high-quality teachers in all of our classrooms, there are persistent gaps in how we can approach the issue from a policy perspective. We don’t have a clear way to identify high-quality teachers. We don’t yet understand the practices that sort “bad” teachers into the lowest-income schools. We also do not yet know how policy can ensure equal quality of teachers across schools.

There is emerging research surrounding each of these issues. But unlike other subjects in education (such as the benefits of early childhood education), the research field lacks a consensus on how to tackle these challenges.

What are People Saying?

There are two polarized sides to this case. Reformists on the side of Vergara argue for disrupting the status quo and equalizing the quality of education for every student in California (even if the cost is some teachers’ jobs). They have cited egregious instances of teacher behavior and the difficulty of removing obviously detrimental teachers from classrooms. To them, dismantling teacher tenure laws are just a step toward more substantial reforms of the status quo.

Teachers’ unions, on the other hand, have the explicit charge to protect their teacher members and elevate their profession. They argue that tenure is one way that they can attract quality candidates despite relatively low pay and high stress associated with the job. Protecting tenure is part of protecting the profession, and they consider the tenure statutes as necessary protections to their due process.

State officials and politicians have been unusually quiet since the ruling, perhaps due to a heated electoral race for the State Superintendent for Schools and the strong hand that the California Teachers Association plays in state politics.

The U.S. Secretary of Education has also weighed in on the debate with a widely circulated memo supporting the ruling and advocating for further educational reforms.

Outlook and the Big Picture

The upcoming appeals will certainly examine the other factors affecting California’s struggling classrooms, such as its funding system, pending strains on district budgets, and a growing English-language learner population.

Finally, it is important to note that Judge Treu “stayed” his decision, meaning that while the statutes are overturned, there will be no impact on the ground until the Appellate Court makes a ruling. Now both sides will focus on preparing for that case. We hope that the next case will allow for a more cautious examination of the challenges at hand. Tenure should be reformed to reduce the barriers to remove the most obviously detrimental teachers. But meaningful policy reform requires leaders to step back and consider not only how to remove the worst teachers, but how to identify and support great ones and place them equally among California’s students.

Appendix: Overturned Statutes

Vergara v. State of California et. al. struck down five statutes in the California education code. This is far from the first time these statutes have generated debate. Just in the past few months, other California courts and a current bill in the legislature were working to reform some of these same statutes.

Statute 1: Permanent Employee Status (“Tenure”)


This statute describes the permanent employee status (aka tenure) and the process for conferring it. After two consecutive years, employees should be given permanent employee status at the beginning of the following school year. Employees are notified the March prior to the end of their second year, which means that in effect, they teach for about one and a half years before administrators decide to grant them tenure.

Statutes 2-4: Dismissal

44938(b)1 and 44938(b)(2), 44934, and 44944

These three statutes lay out the process for dismissing a tenured teacher. In addition to rights afforded to all employees of California public agencies, these statutes lay out very specific processes for timelines and costs for dismissal procedures. It requires the state to cover at least half of the administrative costs, including lawyers’ fees, as well as travel, meal, accommodation, and facilities costs for the hearings, as well as the teacher’s salary if they have been removed from the classroom.

Statute 5: Last-in-First-Out (LIFO)


This statute pertains to when a school district lays off staff off due to budget cuts or reductions in the school’s student population size. It requires that the districts dismiss the most recent hire first, and the oldest hire last (hence the “Last-in-First-Out” label). Last-in-First-Out makes the timing of hiring the only criteria for layoffs, unless the administrator can prove that another teacher’s specific skill or certification is absolutely essential for students’ learning needs.

Works Cited [+ Expand]

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Clotfelter, C., Glennie, E., Ladd, H., & Vigdor, J. (2006). Would Higher Salaries Keep Teachers in High-Poverty Schools? Evidence from a Policy Intervention in North Carolina (Working Paper No. 12285). National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

Demystifying Education Finance in California. (n.d.). California Common Sense. Retrieved June 19, 2014, from

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Hanushek, E. A., & Rivkin, S. G. (2006). Chapter 18 Teacher Quality. In Handbook of the Economics of Education (Vol. 2, pp. 1051–1078). Elsevier. Retrieved from

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The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood – value_added.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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