Case Closed: Why Vergara Must be Upheld in California

In June 2014, a California court issued a landmark decision in Vergara v. California that recognized a student’s right to effective teachers by declaring California’s teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoff statutes unconstitutional. As monumental as it was, the ruling was certainly not the last word in this case: As expected, the state and teachers’ unions appealed the decision earlier this year.

We’ve followed this case closely and think the trial court got it right. To be clear, we believe just as strongly that teachers should have reasonable job protections. But as we’ve said before, this case has always been about finding the right balance between giving children the education they deserve and giving teachers the job security they need. We know it’s possible to find that balance because school districts across the country have already done it.

We wanted to make sure the appeals court knows, too. That’s why we filed a brief in support of the trial court’s decision together with the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). In our brief, we highlight the experiences of two school districts with more balanced tenure policies that are working for teachers and students:

Shelby County Schools

The appellants in Vergara insist that California’s current tenure laws—which effectively allow low-performing teachers to remain in the classroom indefinitely—are the only things preventing a mass exodus of teacher talent. But this certainly wasn’t the case in Shelby County, Tennessee, where interest in teaching has never been higher under new performance-based tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws enacted by the state. In fact, since these laws went into effect, applications to teach in Shelby County Schools (SCS) have nearly doubled or tripled each year.

These numbers aren’t masking discontent beneath the surface: Under the new laws, teachers overwhelmingly report feeling supported in their professional practice. Based on a TNTP-administered diagnostic assessment of school culture, more than 75 percent of SCS teachers surveyed since these policies went into effect say that they understand what is expected of them and feel supported in their practice.

Most importantly, though, there is evidence that a balanced approach to tenure has contributed to better results for SCS students. Lower-performing teachers have left the district as a result of the new policies, and SCS has replaced them with teachers whose average evaluation rating is substantially higher. Students are learning more, too: In the Memphis Innovation Zone (iZone), the lowest performing schools are tripling and quadrupling academic gains across the rest of the state on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.  

DC Public Schools

DC Public Schools (DCPS) is another district where we can see the actual results of performance-based tenure and dismissal policies. As in Shelby County, the sky hasn’t fallen. Since these policies went into effect, DCPS has retained close to 90 percent of its irreplaceable teachers—those rated highly effective—even as it has replaced most of its low-performing teachers. And top DCPS teachers are more likely to report feeling valued by their school leader and the district compared to the years before the new performance-based staffing policies were introduced.

And as in Shelby County, students are better off for these new policies. DCPS is replacing ineffective teachers with new teachers who are, on average, more effective than those they’re replacing. Student achievement is on the rise, too: Results from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that students in DCPS made greater academic gains than any other state in the country. Since 2011, DCPS students have improved in each grade and subject tested by NAEP, and their growth exceeds national growth levels in every grade and subject.

The Bottom Line

In districts where tenure, dismissal, and layoff policies allow consideration of teacher performance, the public education system isn’t crumbling. Teachers are not leaving in droves. In fact, there is considerable evidence that these districts are thriving, and that the laws have actually made it easier for them to attract and retain high-performing teachers—and give more students the great education they deserve.

Shelby County Schools and DC Public Schools prove it’s possible to balance reasonable teacher protections and students’ rights. It is our hope that the Vergara ruling is upheld on appeal and districts across California will soon be able to follow in their footsteps. 

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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