Teachable Moment

05.29.14

Vergara v. California: The Most Important Court Case You’ve Never Heard Of

You didn’t know that nine California kids were suing their state over substandard teaching at their public schools? You should—it’s an example to all who want equal access to education.

This school year, parents learned a tough lesson: The only force on behalf of the public interest is an interested public. And sometimes the students show us the way.

Nine public school children have been courageously taking on the government in California, where their right to a sound education is rooted in the Constitution. A judge’s decision is expected soon, and their lawsuit is being watched closely in education circles. Given the stakes, Vergara v. California—so named for one of the plaintiffs, student Beatriz Vergara—deserves even wider attention.

Win or lose, these students are reminding us of the activism that is born out of the inaction of our leaders and the frustration driven by inequity in education. Children and parents have resorted to acting on their own, finding inspiration in desperation.

Their fight stems from a basic belief that access to highly qualified teachers should be fair and widespread, that classroom safety is paramount, and that equity remains essential.

Vergara v. California takes aim at laws that go directly to the heart of a good education: the ability to have, keep, and respect good teachers and dismiss utterly failing ones. Specifically, the suit challenges California laws that create three sets of problems, all of them undermining a school’s ability to act in the best interest of students.

First, teachers are permitted to earn lifetime employment after a mere 18 months in class, well before their performance can be evaluated to merit such a guarantee. Second, the dismissal process for ineffective teachers is so cumbersome and costly that it rarely works as it should. And third, a “last-in, first-out” law gives priority to seniority over success in times of teacher layoffs.

The absurdity of that law was driven home when a Teacher of the Year in California was forced out during layoffs because others had more time on the job.

Vergara v. California is about equity. No school should have bad teachers—and the poorest schools, with mostly black and Latino student bodies, have a disproportionate share of them.

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.

On the first day of the trial in January, one of the student plaintiffs, Brandon Debose Jr., summed up the case in life-changing terms.

“There were certain teachers that you knew, if you got stuck in their class, you wouldn’t learn a thing. That year would be a lost year,” he explained to reporters. “If we know how important education is, it makes no sense to me why we wouldn’t make sure that every kid has a good teacher every year.”

“If we know how important education is, it makes no sense to me why we wouldn’t make sure that every kid has a good teacher every year.”

The consequences of substandard teaching go far beyond whether college or a good job is in reach. They affect earning potential, with implications throughout a person’s life. Researchers at Harvard University found that replacing a less effective teacher with one of just average quality results in a lifetime gain of $50,000 per student and upward of $1.4 million for a typical classroom.

Students in schools across America tell stories similar to those of the Vergara plaintiffs, and their parents also want equity and safety. As groundbreaking as the suit is, it is also heartbreaking, as it highlights the burden on families who feel compelled to turn to the courts for the public education they pay for and have the right to expect.

In New York City, home to the largest public school system in America, the four-year graduation rate hovers at a dismal 60.4 percent. More distressing: Less than 22 percent of the city’s students graduate college and emerge career ready, and the number drops to 12.2 percent for Hispanics and 11.1 percent for African-Americans.

Despite those statistics, a new teachers’ contract celebrated by political and union leaders offers more frustration. The deal will weaken evaluations of teachers, reduce instructional time, send teachers with disciplinary records back to the classroom, and make it harder to fire a teacher who engages in sexual misconduct with kids.

Parents can justifiably wonder whether the contract makes their schools better and safer, the two measures that matter most to them. What matters to Michael Mulgrew, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s main teachers union, is something else entirely: political victory against those pushing for school choice and teacher accountability.

“We are at war with the reformers,” said Mulgrew. Lost in such play-to-the-base rhetoric is how marginalized students feel and how parents are forced to fight.

They are not winning the war.

Our education system is not preparing young people for the world they will face. The U.S. ranks below average among the world’s top 20 most developed countries in math and is no better than average in reading and science, and there have been no significant changes in those performances by 15-year-olds over time, according to an internationally respected benchmark test.

If the debate does not include parents and students, if the ballot box does not work for them, they turn to the courts for fairness. No matter what the judge decides, the kids from the Vergara suit have provided that reminder, and inspiration for a nation.