By Tom Watts
A California trial court judge decided in Vergara v. California today that California’s teacher tenure system violates the state constitution. This is a big deal: teacher tenure has been a political controversy for years, and, while anti-tenure advocates have repeatedly won legislative victories, this is their first judicial victory. However, I want to suggest that overheated rhetoric around the decision is exactly that: overheated. The decision probably does not herald the end of teacher tenure nationwide, nor is it likely the harbinger of mass dismissals of teachers.
As a doctrinal matter, this case may be confusing for those more accustomed to federal equal protection analysis. Unlike the federal Equal Protection Clause, California’s Equal Protection Clause is the basis for the state’s constitutional right to education, because education is a fundamental interest under California constitutional law. (California also has another constitutional right related to education, which derives from the Free Schools Clause, not directly at issue here.) Thus, the court discussed a few times (e.g., page 15 of the decision) the extent to which the teacher tenure system disproportionately injured poor and minority students, but, unlike a comparable result under federal equal protection analysis, the court was not suggesting that California could fix the problem by more equitably distributing the negative effects of the tenure system. Rather, the tenure system violates students’ right to an education, regardless of any disproportionate effect. That is, the tenure system was struck down as adequacy matter, not as an equity matter (see page 3 of the decision). [Read more…] about California Teacher Tenure