Anti-Teacher Vergara Lawsuit Reversed; Campbell Brown’s Group Brings New Lawsuit in MN

The second battle in the well-funded war against job protections for school teachers was won last week by teachers. The Washington Post’s Emma Brown  explains that a California appeals court on Thursday overturned the Vergara lawsuit and “upheld the state’s laws regarding teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs, handing a major victory to teachers unions.”

Last week’s “ruling reverses a lower court’s 2014 decision that found after a 10-week trial that job protection statutes for teachers had created illegal inequalities: Poor and minority children were more likely to be saddled with ineffective teachers who were difficult to fire. The plaintiffs in the case presented a new civil rights argument against teacher tenure laws, and when it was successful, it was widely expected to be the first of many similar legal challenges in other states.” In their lawsuit, plaintiffs had alleged that job protections for teachers caused the poorest children to be taught by unqualified teachers.

Except, that on appeal, the plaintiff’s effort to undermine teachers’ due process protections was unsuccessful.  Last week the three appellate judges wrote: “We reverse the trial court’s decision.  Plaintiffs filed to establish that the challenged statutes violate equal protection, primarily because they did not show that the statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students.  Although the statutes may lead to the hiring and retention of more ineffective teachers than a hypothetical alternative system would, the statutes do not address the assignment of teachers; instead, administrators—not the statutes—ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach.”

The Vergara case was launched in California by Silicon Valley telecommunications entrepreneur David Welch and the nonprofit he created to fund and publicize the case.  He recruited student-plaintiffs and hired as plaintiff attorneys former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a corporate attorney who represents Walmart and who represented George W. Bush against Al Gore in 2000, when the Florida recount reached the U.S. Supreme Court. At the trial court level, in June of 2014, Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure and seniority protections for California’s K-12 school teachers.

Peter Schrag, retired editorial page editor for the Sacramento Bee, described the case during the original trial in April of 2014: “The case, and the public relations effort accompanying it, is being bankrolled by a nonprofit called Students Matter, set up by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch.  Welch is seconded by groups such as Ben Austin’s Parent Revolution and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, with funding help from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, all of which have battled teachers unions and supported charter schools and ‘transformational’ change in public education.”

The battles in this plutocrats-vs-teachers war are only beginning, however.  The plaintiffs in the Vergara case have pledged that they will appeal last week’s decision to the California Supreme Court.  Coincidentally last Wednesday, Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, a group she formed to file lawsuits against state laws that provide due process job protection for teachers, filed a Vergara-like lawsuit in Minnesota. (See here and here, to learn about Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor who has made her cause defeating teachers unions through lawsuits threatening laws that protect due process.)  The new case in Minnesota is the second anti-teacher lawsuit filed by Brown and the Partnership for Educational Justice.  The first, Wright v. New York is currently being appealed.

Motoko Rich for the NY Times explains: “The Minnesota lawsuit names the state, Gov. Mark Dayton, the state Education Department and its commissioner as defendants.  The case is being supported by the Partnership for Education Justice, a New York-based advocacy group that receives its primary funding from the foundations of the Walton family, the founders of Walmart, and the Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad.  Students for Education Reform a group that also receives funding from the Broad and the Walton Family Foundations, is also backing the suit.”

Minnesota’s education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius (one of the defendants named in the case), is quoted by the NY Times in support of the school teachers of Minnesota: “Minnesota has some of the most hard-working and talented teachers in the nation, and we are committed to ensuring every student has a dedicated and competent teacher.” “We also have rigorous laws that protect due process for teachers and that, when followed, provide school administrators and school boards with the authority to remove teachers.”

Two weeks ago the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a study on the allocation of school teachers across school districts.  It confirms what the research literature has shown: that children in America’s poorest schools tend to have teachers who are less experienced and less credentialed.  In its review of the literature and of current data, however, EPI finds: “It is easy to summarize our results because we consistently fail to show an association between the strength of unions and the allocation or misallocation of teacher credentials across schools in a state.  States with stronger teachers’ unions do not seem to place teachers with weak credentials in schools with disadvantaged students any more than states with weak unions do.  We find no negative or no association at all between union strength on the one hand and the allocations of credentials in average schools or in high poverty schools on the other (although we find some positive slopes, suggesting that the credentials of teachers—on average and in high poverty schools—are better in states with stronger unions.)  Most importantly, we find no association between union strength and the misallocation of credentials among high-poverty schools relative to the average school.  This result is confirmed using different specifications of union strength, measured categorically in quintiles and as continuous, and adding an additional control for the proportion of high-poverty schools in the state.”

There are other factors that may be affecting where teachers choose to work, factors that nobody bringing the anti-teachers union lawsuits is mentioning: unequal school funding; working conditions; large class sizes in the poorest school districts; the shortage of an adequate number of support professionals including counselors, school psychologists, and social workers; inadequate curriculum; insufficient access to technology; and the absence of science labs, the arts, and other programs that encourage students to be engaged in their education.  The people bringing the anti-teacher lawsuits never talk about adequate taxation and equalization of school funding to ensure that all schools are suitable places for teachers to work and students to learn.

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