More thoughts about the Vergara v. California teacher tenure and seniority decision

June 26

I have a new Reason.org blog post up about Vergara v. California, the recent trial court decision striking down various teacher tenure and seniority statutes under California’s Equal Protection Clause. (The “tentative decision” is here.)

My co-bloggers Orin Kerr and Will Baude have taken a negative line on the decision, and I agree. Here’s the conclusion, after my analysis and critique of the different steps in the opinion (paragraph break added):

In sum, while public teacher tenure and seniority may be bad ideas, the court’s analysis of why they violate the Equal Protection Clause is severely under-reasoned. The opinion’s earnest tone, and its constant—constant—insistence that this is merely legal analysis, not policy judgment, make it even less satisfying. The smart money would bet that this opinion will be reversed on appeal.

True, California has educational guarantees in its constitution, which the federal government lacks, so education probably merits greater judicial oversight under the state constitution than under the federal one. But this opinion precisely demonstrates the pitfalls of judicial oversight. There are clearly great disparities in education, and many of these disparities are correlated with race and class. And a great many policies contribute in some way to those disparities: the inflexibility associated with teachers’ unions, teacher assignment rules, the partial reliance on local property taxes to fund schools—and, one might add, the fact that public schools in underprivileged areas benefit from a somewhat captive audience that can’t easily escape by paying for private schools. Should courts strike down every one? Just the ones that plaintiffs bring before them in a particular case? Or should it look primarily at policies that contribute the most to the problem and have the least justification? These problems are ill-suited to judicial resolution.

Of course, some problems of educational inequality clearly violate a constitutional provision: Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is an obvious example. But the further one gets from intentional discrimination and the closer one gets to ingrained, systemic problems, the more carefully judges should tread.

Read the whole thing here. My full archive of Reason.org material is here. In particular, you can click here for my post about state voucher litigation; here for my policy brief about due process, non-delegation, and antitrust challenges to private regulators; here for my post about the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners antitrust case that will soon be heard by the Supreme Court; here for my post about the Amtrak non-delegation case that will also soon be heard by the Supreme Court; and here for last Term’s ruling about the antitrust state-action doctrine.

Sasha Volokh lives in Atlanta with his wife and three kids, and is an associate professor at Emory Law School. He has written numerous articles and commentaries on law and economics, privatization, antitrust, prisons, constitutional law, regulation, torts, and legal history.
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Eugene Volokh | June 26