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Vergara v. California: A Big Win for California Students and Teachers

June 10, 2014

Across the country, students and teachers are celebrating. In his decision today in Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf M. Treu affirmed that California’s students have a constitutional right to educational equality.

This ruling is a huge win for kids and teachers in the Golden State.  

The journey towards this decision began in May 2012, when nine courageous public school students filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court. They challenged several statutes that forced schools and districts to push out great teachers and retain ineffective ones—thus directly harming students.  

For instance, state law required that, in the unfortunate case of layoffs, the last teacher hired be the first teacher fired—regardless of the teacher’s effectiveness. Known as “last-in, first-out” (LIFO), this policy guarantees that great teachers will be taken away from the students who need them.

Additionally, the plaintiffs challenged laws that awarded tenure before teachers showed a track record of success and made it nearly impossible to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.

It’s easy to see how these laws deny students the right to equal educational opportunity. Research shows that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement. Therefore, if we want to maximize student achievement, we need the best teachers in our classrooms. And the statutes that were challenged in Vergara worked directly against that goal.

Though the state of California was listed as the defendant, in reality something much bigger was on trial in Vergara: a public education system that is designed with the interests of adults, not students, in mind.

It’s no surprise, then, that the case has kick-started a desperately needed national conversation on the structural flaws of our public education system. For far too long, harmful and illogical policies have persisted simply because they were considered politically untouchable. But no longer. It is my sincere hope that we will ride this momentum and work towards making the reforms necessary to ensure that every student receives a great education.

And while the Vergara decision is an important step, there are many more issues to address. Going forward, state legislatures across the country should take this opportunity to reexamine their education systems and determine whether they truly prioritize students.

 Additionally, the nine brave plaintiffs and Students Matter deserve our gratitude for filing this case. Challenging powerful groups that are committed to preserving the status quo is a daunting task. Their commitment to the students of California is more than admirable.

Yet we must remember that the battle for educational equity is far from over—especially in California.  Across the state massive racial achievement gaps persist, and even widen. In Los Angeles County, only 50 percent of African American 4th graders and 44 percent of 8th graders are proficient in English Language Arts. Only 63 percent of African American students graduate high school in four years.

So while we celebrate the Vergara decision, we can’t be complacent—there is too much work left to do. But with collaboration and focus on the task ahead, we can give all kids the great education they deserve.