How will California teacher-tenure ruling affect Rhode Island?

In June, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down California’s teacher-tenure system in a decision that has been widely hailed and criticized. In Vergara v. State of California, Treu ruled that California laws that protect tenured teachers from dismissal deny students equal protection of the law under the Constitution of California. The plaintiffs in the case were a group of California students. The defendants included the State of California and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

According to Treu, several California statutes significantly inhibit the ability of California school departments to dismiss ineffective teachers. The judge found that high-poverty, minority students disproportionately experience this backlog of bad teachers.

The challenged laws “impose real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education” and they violate the state’s constitutional obligation to provide “a basically equal opportunity to achieve a quality education,” the judge decided.

Steve Adams assesses how the Vergara ruling might impact the teacher-tenure system in Rhode Island.

Q. What was at the root of the Vergara decision?

A. Prior to Judge Treu’s ruling, California’s Permanent Employment Statute required school administrators to decide on tenure for a new teacher after just 18 months, in other words, by March 15 of the teacher’s second year. The judge found this time period insufficient to determine whether a newly minted teacher has what it takes to be proficient. Once tenure is granted, incompetent teachers benefit from a tangle of laws that elongate the dismissal process to such an extent that dismissal is both extremely difficult and extremely costly, sometimes even as much as $450,000, the judge found. Many California school districts were giving up in lieu of devoting resources to what, in the end, was a losing battle.

Q. This is a California state court decision. Why did it get national attention?

A. Teacher tenure is a hot button issue, and Vergara is expected to generate a series of copycat cases across the country. A lawsuit has already been filed in New York and the legal team behind Vergara said it may bring lawsuits in several other states.

Q. What impact do you expect the ruling to have on Rhode Island’s teacher tenure system?

A. Likely minimal, if any.

Q. Why?

A. The decision was based on the Constitution of California, under which education is a fundamental right, meaning any law affecting education must protect all citizens equally. Conversely, education is not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution, and the Rhode Island Supreme Court has found that education is not a fundamental right under the Rhode Island Constitution. Plaintiffs would face a much stiffer constitutional challenge in Rhode Island if they pursued a case like Vergara.

Q. How does the Rhode Island teacher tenure law system compare to California?

A. That’s another big differentiator. Although Rhode Island also recognizes teacher tenure (three years, as opposed to California’s two-year statute), it is not the absolute right here that it appears to be in California. Rhode Island school districts can dismiss tenured teachers for “good and just cause.” Collective bargaining agreements often require arbitration of teacher dismissal cases instead of court cases. I have found that arbitrators will uphold dismissals as long as the school committee acted in good faith, and for reasons important to building a good school system. For example, I have seen an arbitrator find that a school department had good and just cause to dismiss a tenured teacher with nearly two decades of experience based on less than one month of poor performance. Although not many Rhode Island cases have defined the good and just cause standard, Rhode Island courts have upheld dismissals for as little as one act of insubordination.

Q. Any other reasons why the Vergara decision will likely not have much of an impact in Rhode Island?

A. It’s important to remember that Treu is a Superior Court judge, which means his decision is only the first step of what promises to be a lengthy appellate process in California. It is certainly possible that California’s appellate courts will overturn his decision. Also, the Rhode Island Department of Education has made a significant commitment to improving teacher quality in the last decade, including giving school departments more authority to dismiss poor performing tenured teachers.

Rhode Island school districts already have the power to dismiss poor performers, a power Judge Treu found lacking for California school districts. While it’s not easy to dismiss a teacher in Rhode Island, if a school department follows the process with fidelity, they can dismiss poor performers. It requires the administrative team to track teacher performance, and to confront poor performers, rather than just pass them from school to school within the district. Ultimately, it requires a school committee to trust its administrative team and to devote resources to weeding out poor performers, including to the legal process that invariably results because of a teacher’s union’s challenge to the dismissal of one of its members.

Steve is a partner in the firm’s Providence office, where he devotes a substantial portion of his law practice to civil litigation and representing Rhode Island schools.