California teacher reform lawsuit sparks copycat, more likely to come

Part 127 of 125 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

Teacher quality is the most important in-school factor in students’ education, the National Council on Teacher Quality says.

After a first-of-its-kind teacher quality lawsuit was decided in favor of education reformers in California, the first copycat lawsuit has been announced — this time, in New York.

Typically, reforms to the American education system occur in state legislatures, and some education reformers say it may not be wise to pursue reforms through the courts.

Vergara v. California struck down the state’s laws that required teacher layoffs based solely on seniority with no regard to teacher effectiveness, gave teachers permanent status after two years on the job, and made it difficult for school administrators to dismiss ineffective teachers.

Those laws interfered with students’ right to a quality education and disproportionately affected minority students, attorneys for the plaintiffs — 18 teenagers and 10 young students — argued successfully.

Former CNN reporter Campbell Brown and her nonprofit Partnership for Educational Justice have said six parents have agreed to serve as plaintiffs in the case they plan to sponsor, arguing against similar laws in the Empire State.

BRING IT ON: Campbell Brown plans to help New York families with lawsuit, intending to overturn statutes that make it difficult to keep excellent teachers in the classroom.

“I think there’s a shift under way where data and research are really trumping rhetoric,” said Nancy Waymack, managing director for district policy at NCTQ. “Now, people are looking at the issue more deeply, and there have been some successful attempts to change some of the issues in different states.”

While teachers unions decried the California court’s ruling, Alexandra Freeze, senior director of communications and advocacy for the Association of American Educators, said the lawsuits and policy changes help raise the standard of professionalism for teachers.

“Professionalism in the private sector means you can negotiate your own contract, you’re rewarded for performance. That’s not how it is in teaching right now,” Freeze said. “Teachers are embracing that philosophy — they want to be rewarded for a job well done, which is not something rewarded under that union mode.”

Teachers are well-respected in public opinion, she said, but they often are unfairly targeted by those seeking to improve education. A higher standard of professionalism can help change that, she said.

Education lawyers have a long history of questioning whether states are providing enough money for education to meet constitutional requirements, often with support from the teachers unions. But raising questions over specific policies is new, beginning with California’s Vergara case.

“People have been suing to make schools spend more money, often with the strong teacher union support, for 45 years,” said Frederick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute. “What we’ve not seen before is people using the courts to change the rules regarding tenure or change job protections for teachers, or to do things that are going to be uncomfortable for people who work in K-12 education. Usually the shoe’s been on the other foot.”

Most reform measures don’t lend themselves well to litigation, said Joshua Dunn, associate director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. It’s difficult, he said, to argue that state constitutions require school choice programs, for example.

Reformers, however, are turning to the courts to press for changes in personal management.

“From there, it’s not as long a jump to ask the courts, ‘Do you have to offer Advanced Placement classes?’ Or preschool?” Hess said. “For me, I watched this, and I’m deeply concerned about a Pandora’s Box, where we’re inviting the courts to start making decisions about all manner of educational provisions. … I don’t think that’s good for kids, taxpayers, or teachers.”

Winning the court case may not be required for reformers to succeed, Dunn said.

“My general sense is that they think they can win even if they don’t win,” he said. “That’s because, just through the discovery process, the teachers unions are going to have to end up defending policies that allow obviously incompetent teachers to keep their jobs. If nothing else, they view it as a kind of political victory.

“What the judges end up ruling is almost secondary with these cases,” he said.

Attorneys for the New York plaintiffs say they their lawsuit is expected to be filed next month.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at

Rob Port is the editor of, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.