By Melanie Holland, CEI Intern.
Vergara vs. California: Creating a new National Standard or Responding to State-Based Needs?
Since 1975, student achievement in California has steadily decreased following the Serrano vs. California court case that introduced “Proposition 13.” The Serrano ruling concluded that it was unconstitutional in the state of California to fund public education district by district based on property taxes because it would take different amounts of money to reach the same standards. As a result, the state introduced Proposition 13, which placed a local revenue cap on how much money school districts can receive. The excess would be distributed among poorer districts.
Since Proposition 13, mean expenditures per student in California have dropped from 11th to 30th in national rankings. By 1990, the state was spending nearly 10% less per-pupil than the US Average. It is clear that this has prevented the California school districts to adapt to the increasing needs of their students. The local property taxes don’t come close to covering the costs of California education. California now has “fiscal neutrality:” meaning that the expenditures spent on each individual student or school district does not correlate in any way to the local property wealth of the community
With the help of an organization called Students Matter, nine California public school students filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of several statues governing the teaching profession. The students believed that they were being denied their constitutional right to a quality education, and demanded swift, system-wide solutions. The trial began on January 27th, and on June 10th the judge ruled in favor of the students.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers attempted to prove that the following laws violated students’ constitutional right to equal access to quality education:
– Permanent employment statute: In California, principals are required to decide whether to grant teachers tenure after 18 months. This important decision is made before novice teachers’ long-term effectiveness is apparent to administrators.
– Dismissal statues: Over the course of the last decade, less than 100 teachers were dismissed in the entire state of California, with only 19 of these decisions even taking classroom effectiveness into account. The complicated teacher dismissal process costs districts up to $500,000 and can take years.
– “Last-in, first-out” layoff statute: The law commonly referred to as “LIFO” forces districts to base layoff decisions solely on seniority, with no regard to teacher quality or other considerations.
A comprehensive, three-year study that measured teacher effectiveness by tracking students’ test scores found that the Los Angeles Unified School District’s black and Latino students are two to three times as likely as their white or Asian peers to be taught by a teacher who rates as lower performing. As such, these laws disproportionately impact high-needs schools. First, because ineffective tenured teaches are hired more frequently in these schools, Second, when districts or schools need to cut back on the number of teachers, high-needs schools are most affected because they are staffed by younger and less experienced teachers.
It is important to remember that the judge didn’t rule that teacher tenure itself was a violation of student rights, but that the current permanent employment statue was unconstitutional. This means that the teacher tenure in California could be restructured from 18 months to 3-5 years, which is the average across the nation.
While this court case could provide transformational change to the California or even national educational system and structure, it is more likely to be a building brick to help California rebound from the effects of their mean expenditure losses across the state.