The Role of Courts in Shaping Educational Policy

Written by: Dave Reid

Primary Source: Green & Write, April 20, 2016

Last week a California appeals court reversed the initial ruling in the prominent Vergara v. California case, finding teacher job protection laws do not violate California’s equal protection clause.

The three appeals judges unanimously agreed that while certain statutes such as teacher tenure and district dismissal policies may protect ineffective teachers, the plaintiffs failed to show that the job protections make any one group of students more likely to be taught by these ineffective teachers.

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Paulson

Photo Courtesy of Matthew Paulson

In its ruling, the appeals court said that “the challenged statutes do not in any way instruct administrators regarding which teachers to assign to which schools”. The judges acknowledged district administrators placed ineffective teachers in schools that serve primarily poor students, but noted that this placement by administrators does not “inevitably flow from the challenged statutes.”

In short, where the initial ruling in the case found students’ rights were violated by teacher job protection laws, the appeals judges concluded the laws in question were not responsible for violating students’ rights.

Vergara v. California: The Case

For those concerned with teacher quality, debates on teacher tenure laws are topical and ongoing. One side argues tenure laws protect teachers against unwarranted firings and allow teachers to stand up for children in the face of unfair rules or ineffective administrations. The other side argues tenure laws make it difficult, if not impossible, to fire ineffective teachers.

This debate culminated in 2012 when nine public school students (with the backing of Students Matter) filed a lawsuit against the state of California challenging teacher tenure. The plaintiffs argued teacher tenure laws deprived them of their constitutional right to an education and therefore violated their civil rights. The judge in the case agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the California State Constitution, specifically concluding teacher tenure laws disproportionately negatively affect poor and minority students.

Vergara v. California: The Aftermath

The aftermath of the case has been a national debate over teacher tenure laws specifically and teacher quality more generally. Since the original Vergara v. California ruling in 2014, similar lawsuits have been filed in other states, including New York and Minnesota, keeping this polarizing topic in the national spotlight.

The Role of Courts in Shaping Education Policy

The Vergara v. California case and subsequent appeal brings (back) to the forefront the conversation about courts and judges shaping educational policy.

Local, state, and federal courts have a long history of involvement in educational policy issues. These issues have ranged from desegregation and school finance to bilingual education and special education. Most recently, teacher rights, such as teacher tenure laws, have been brought to the courts. While historically courts have been hesitant to make educational policy decisions, (instead allowing local decision makers, such as elected legislatures or school boards to take on this responsibility), more recently courts have played an increasingly prominent role interpreting federal and state constitutions.

As the role of courts continues to increase in the educational policy shaping arena, much of the commentary centers on the danger of courts, specifically appointed judges, making educational policy decisions, which are traditionally made by elected legislators and local constituencies, such as elected school boards. Much of the time people, including courts themselves, argue elected officials should be making these decisions, as they represent the interests of local constituents. However, other people argue elected officials seldom prioritize the concerns of those not of the majority and courts are better suited to protect the rights of marginalized groups.

As is historically evident, courts play a crucial role in making sure student educational rights are realized. There will always be a role for the courts in shaping educational policy and this role is likely to expand as more student rights’ cases, like Vergara v. California are brought to the forefront of educational debates.

As legal scholar Jay Heubert states, “Law driven school reform efforts, while falling short of their full potential, have produced important educational improvements….For those who seek to use law to improve education, it has always been important to communicate effectively with judges. Conflict over rights is inherent in a constitutional system that authorizes, indeed commands, judges to give certain values and interests priority over the preferences of political majorities.”

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Dave Reid
Dave is a doctoral student in Educational Policy and Teacher Education. His current research interests include how teachers make sense of and interact with the policies they are asked to implement. Prior to returning to graduate school, Dave was a 7th and 8th grade special education teacher and also served as an instructional coach for elementary and middle school teachers. Dave earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications from Franklin Pierce College and an M.Ed. in education from Arizona State University. - See more at: