Calif. teacher tenure case spices up superintendent race

This story has been updated.

The Vergara case in California, in which a judge struck down that state’s tenure laws and other job protections for teachers, is about to become a central issue in the November race for state schools chief.

The incumbent, Tom Torlakson, a Democrat, is a former legislator with strong union backing. Torlakson was named as a defendant in the Vergara case along with Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

He is facing a challenge from another Democrat, Marshall Tuck, who was president of Green Dot, a chain of public charter schools. Green Dot is one of a few charters with unionized teachers. But Tuck has sided with the plaintiffs in Vergara, calling the state’s teacher protections “a broken system.”

Their differences set up a political dilemma for Torlakson: as a defendant, does he accept the state Supreme Court ruling in the Vergara case, alienating teachers unions but robbing Tuck of ammunition? Or does he appeal the ruling, counting on the political clout of the unions to deliver for him at the ballot box?

Read the ruling

Tenure ruling

A California judge ruled that the state's teacher tenure rules violate the civil rights of students, as the worst teachers end up in the highest-poverty schools, creating unequal conditions. Read it.

On Friday, Torlakson cast his lot with the unions.

“The people who dedicate their lives to the teaching profession deserve our admiration and support. Instead, this ruling lays the failings of our education system at their feet,” he said in a statement announcing that he would seek an appeal of the Vergara decision.

“We do not fault doctors when the emergency room is full,” Torlakson said. “We do not criticize the firefighter whose supply of water runs dry. Yet while we crowd our classrooms and fail to properly equip them with adequate resources, those who filed and support this case shamelessly seek to blame teachers who step forward every day to make a difference for our children.”

Tuck quickly took on Torlakson’s position Friday, issuing a statement accusing Torlakson of hurting the state’s students.

“By deciding to appeal the Vergara ruling, my opponent Tom Torlakson has placed a stake in the ground: he stands with his Sacramento funders and not with students,” Tuck said. “Never has it been more clear that it is time for change in California than when the only elected official dedicated to education will not side with kids -- even after an independent judge found that the status quo ‘shocks the conscience’.”

Plaintiffs in the Vergara case successfully argued that teacher tenure laws make it difficult and costly to get rid of ineffective teachers, and that poor and minority children find themselves in schools with disproportionate numbers of weak teachers. The judge in the case ruled that that violates their right under the California constitution to an education that is equal to public education provided in more affluent communities.

Under the California laws the court struck down in June, school districts have about 18 months after a teacher is hired to award tenure. That is not enough time to make a valid decision, the judge found, noting that California is one of only five states with a period of two years or less. Thirty two states have a three-year period and nine states have four- or five-year periods. Four states have no tenure system.

The complaint also attacked seniority rules and “last in, first out” policies, which say the newest teachers are the first to be laid off when jobs are cut, regardless of performance.

The ruling was a serious blow to labor unions, whose core mission includes job protection for teachers. The judge issued a stay pending an appeal, and a final resolution could take years.

The Vergara lawsuit was funded by Silicon Valley mogul David F. Welch, founder of an optical telecommunications firm, who created Students Matter, an advocacy group, to challenge teachers unions in California.

Welch pumped millions dollars into the effort, which was headed by the high-profile legal team of Ted Boutrous and Ted Olson, the same lawyers who won a U.S. Supreme Court victory that allowed same-sex marriages to resume in California.

Students Matter plans to fund similar lawsuits in other states with teacher job protections similar to those in California, Boutrous said. In July, it announced it was helping with a case filed in New York by the New York City Parents Union. Weeks later, another group headed by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown filed a similar suit in New York, and it is likely those cases will be combined.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.

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