Pass / Fail | So Cal education, LAUSD, the Cal States and the UCs

Teacher job protections attacked, defended in landmark trial’s closing arguments

Plaintiff Elizabeth Vergara speaks during a lunch break news conference during the closing arguments of the trial in Los Angeles.
Plaintiff Elizabeth Vergara speaks during a lunch break news conference during the closing arguments of the trial in Los Angeles.
Adolfo Guzman Lopez/KPCC

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The closing arguments of the Vergara vs. California trial on Thursday painted two vastly different pictures of whether students are harmed by the job protections enjoyed by public school teachers.

“The statutes have a real and appreciable impact on the exercise of a fundamental right. And here that fundamental right is an equal shot at an education that will prepare one for life,” lawyer Ted Boutrous said to Judge Rolf Treu.

Boutrous is one of the lawyers representing nine California public school students who alleged in the lawsuit that led to the trial that their exposure to ineffective teachers denied them the state’s guarantee of an adequate education.

Boutrous reminded Judge Treu that his side questioned 30 witnesses over two months, including public school superintendents, teachers, parents, researchers and the student plaintiffs. Testimony showed, Boutrous said, that bad teachers aren’t fired early in their careers because the state’s seniority-based layoffs allow them to stay on the job. The granting of tenure and a complicated, costly firing process also keep bad teachers on the job, he said.  Boutrous played a video of witness Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist.

“Having a highly effective teacher significantly improves children’s outcomes and having a highly ineffective teacher conversely does substantial harm,” Chetty said in the video.

Chetty had done a study tracking 2.5 million public school students, during and after their school careers, to find out the impact of teachers on students.

“This is hard data, it proves our case, it proves these students are being harmed throughout their lives and we request that the court put a stop to this by striking down these statutes,” Boutrous said.

The trial is being closely watched by many of the state’s top education and political leaders and is widely viewed as a bellwether case for public education reform efforts nationwide.

The roughly 80 people in the audience included former California Governor Pete Wilson and LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy, who’d testified for the plaintiffs that the teacher firing process is ineffective. The presidents of the state’s top teachers unions held press events before the proceedings, in which they said that this case is an effort to undermine teacher protections which are crucial to academic freedom and effectiveness.

Judge Rolf Treu underlined the high-stakes nature of the trial before the first lawyer spoke. He asked everyone in the courtroom to turn around and look at two paintings on the courtroom’s back wall, portraits of Judges Earl Warren and Donald Wright.

“Justice Warren wrote the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Justice Wright concurred and was chief justice when the Serrano versus Priest cases came down. Both decisions have an impact on what we’re doing here today,” he said.

The Serrano ruling, four decades ago, struck down as unconstitutional the state’s school funding method, which used local property taxes to fund local schools.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued during the trial that their case would have a far-reaching effect, just as the Serrano case did.

Deputy California Attorney General Susan Carson – defending the state’s laws against the suit - opened her side’s closing arguments by questioning the validity of using student test scores to measure whether a teacher is doing a good job.

“Aside from a handful of anecdotes, plaintiffs have primarily relied on value added methodology, VAM studies, conducted in LAUSD to establish that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers throughout California,” she said.

Carson and her side’s lawyers argued during the trial that well-managed districts are already able to identify and fire bad teachers under the current system with teacher job protections in place.

Plaintiff Brandon DeBose, who had testified that he experienced teachers who insulted his abilities, is now on his way to graduating and going to college, along with other student plaintiffs in the case.  That fact, according to comments by defendants’ lawyer Jim Finberg in his portion of closing arguments, underscores that the student plaintiffs did receive an adequate education, without any changes to teacher job protections.

“None of these plaintiffs suffered a real and appreciable harm and none of them faces imminent harm due to the challenged statutes,” Finberg said.

The Vergara trial is a bench trial, which means that Judge Treu - not a jury - will weigh the evidence and come up with a verdict. With the case adjourned on Thursday afternoon, the judge has up to 90 days after April  10 to make a ruling.