Education

Vergara plaintiffs file latest appeal, wade into legislative debate on teacher job protections

FILE - Vergara vs. California plaintiff Elizabeth Vergara speaks during a lunch break news conference during the original trial in March 2014.
FILE - Vergara vs. California plaintiff Elizabeth Vergara speaks during a lunch break news conference during the original trial in March 2014.
Adolfo Guzman Lopez/KPCC

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Plaintiffs in the Vergara v. California lawsuit formally asked the state Supreme Court take up their case on Tuesday, as expected, arguing that a panel of appellate justices erred in reinstating several teacher job protection laws a lower court judge had previously struck down.

But the advocacy group backing the plaintiffs, Students Matter, is also pivoting its efforts to the state legislature, lending tentative support this week to a wide-ranging bill promising an overhaul for many of the protections — like teacher tenure and seniority-based safeguards against layoffs — that the Vergara lawsuit would eliminate entirely.

The state's two largest teachers unions recently came out in opposition to the bill, AB 934, saying the changes it proposes go too far; Students Matter lent its support despite misgivings the bill doesn't go far enough.

But the bill's author, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, says it's worth touching a third rail of California politics if it means finding a "middle way."

“This isn’t going to get solved in the courts. The court can only make a finding, and I don’t know what’s going to happen there," said Bonilla, a former high school teacher. "I think they identified some real problems [in Vergara]. That piqued my interest in coming up with a real solution.”

Here's what AB 934 would change:

Both the California Teachers Association (CTA) and California Federation of Teachers (CFT) have taken stances in opposition to AB 934, but representatives of the two teacher unions said they're still open to discussing the bill.

CFT president Joshua Pechthalt said Tuesday he likes the portions of the bill mandating collaborative, teacher-led training. But he's troubled by the links the proposal makes between teacher layoff decisions and evaluations, which he said ultimately would allow student test scores to play too big a role in staffing decisions.

"Attaching teacher evaluations to layoffs is hugely problematic," he said. "Clearly that's an area that we have asked to be explained."

Bonilla said the bill is likely headed for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee in "the third or fourth week in June."

At that time, officials with Students Matter hope lawmakers will offer changes they think would improve the bill. In a letter to lawmakers, Students Matter policy director Ben Austin urged an amendment that wouldn't allow teachers to receive tenure until at least their fourth year.

Nevertheless, in AB 934, Austin wrote, "Students Matter sees an opportunity for California’s legislative leaders to begin to address these grave inequities" of Vergara, in which the plaintiffs argued California's teacher job protections harmed low-income and minority students most.

The state Supreme Court will likely decide whether to take up the Vergara appeal later this summer.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Joshua Pechthalt as the CFT's vice president. He is the president.