Print this Article

Closing Arguments Heard in Vergara Lawsuit

April 3, 2014

Closing arguments were heard on March 27 at the Vergara vs. California trial in Los Angeles, with the opposing sides painting two vastly different pictures of whether students are harmed by the job protections enjoyed by public school teachers. The case is being heard in the courtroom of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu.

The group Students Matter, founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, has supported the Vergara lawsuit by hiring a high profile legal team, and issued the following account of the final arguments.”

Nine California school children, with the help of a national education non-profit called Students Matter, filed the lawsuit nearly two years ago against the State of California, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.  Led by Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. and Marcellus A. McRae, attorneys from the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP represented Plaintiffs in bringing their constitutional challenge.  In May 2013, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers intervened in the action to defend the laws at issue in this case.

Plaintiffs' case challenges five state laws that force school district administrators to push passionate, inspiring teachers out of the school system and keep grossly ineffective teachers in front of students year after year.  Specifically, the laws in question (1) force school districts to make teacher tenure decisions before they can determine with any measure of accuracy whether teachers are or will be effective at advancing student learning; (2) make the process to dismiss failing teachers so burdensome, time consuming, and costly that it is virtually impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers; and (3) require districts to engage in quality-blind layoffs based when layoffs are unavoidable.

"Over the past eight weeks, Plaintiffs have presented overwhelming evidence that proves that the Challenged Statutes impose a real and appreciable impact on students' fundamental constitutional rights," said Boutrous.  "The evidence is beyond dispute — these laws harm students each and every day."

During the Court's midday recess, Plaintiffs and several of the witnesses who testified during the case held a press conference, during which they described what this trial has meant to them.
"Being a part of this case has given me an opportunity to stand up for my education," said Plaintiff and high school junior Elizabeth Vergara.  "It has been an amazing journey, and one that has already changed me forever ... My voice matters and I want other students to know that their voice matters too."

"I hope that after we win this case, every student in California will have the chance to learn from inspiring and life-changing teachers," said Plaintiff and high school senior Kate Elliott.  "I'm proud to be a part of this case and to stand up for students across California."

Students Matter founder David F. Welch also spoke at the press conference and discussed his organization's vision for a student-centric education system.  "It is my hope that this trial will lead to a paradigm shift in our education system.  It is imperative that we start looking at education through the lens of children and asking ourselves: 'Is this really what's best for students?'" said Welch.  "The purpose of the education system is to create a better future for all children. That's why we are here today and that's what Students Matter stands for."

The California Teachers Association, on the other hand, offered an altogether different interpretation of the closing arguments.

Arguments in the misguided, two-month-long Vergara v. State of California trial challenging due process rights for teachers will come to a close today. Educators and attorneys speaking at a morning news conference in front of the Los Angeles Superior Court said that the costly trial clearly showed that these laws provide important support not simply for teachers, but for students and quality public education. They also told reporters that the premises of the lawsuit were false, and the plaintiffs had utterly failed to make a convincing case.

Speakers at the press conference included Jim Finberg, attorney for California Federation of Teacher and California Teachers Association; Joshua Pechthalt, California Federation of Teachers President; Dean E. Vogel, California Teachers Association President; Gloria Martinez, a special education and National Board Certified teacher at Rowan Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles Unified School District; Erika Jones, a kindergarten teacher at Angeles Mesa Elementary in LAUSD; Casey Carlson, a special education high school teacher from Santa Cruz Unified School District; and Jeff Seymour, former superintendent of the El Monte City School District, and a defense witness in the trial.

Jim Finberg, attorney for CFT and CTA, said, “The evidence has established that the tenure, dismissal, and reverse seniority layoff provisions serve important interests. They help school districts recruit and retain qualified teachers, which is critical to student learning. Plaintiffs present a false dichotomy. They assert that one has to choose between teacher rights and student learning. In fact, the interests of teachers and students are aligned. When teachers have good working conditions, students thrive.”

“This trial and the evidence clearly show that well-run districts facilitate collaboration by teachers and administrators and help ensure that students are getting the best education possible,” said Joshua Pechthalt, President of the California Federation of Teachers. “Unfortunately, the wealthy conservatives and their mouthpiece attorneys are attempting to win in court what they have failed to achieve in legislation or at the ballot box because the people of California are not with them. Parents and the broader community see through this effort to demonize teachers. We believe we will eventually be vindicated in court.”

“We're confident that if the judge rules based on the evidence we presented, we will prevail. Regardless of the outcome, we’re going to continue to fight for students and educators," said California Teachers Association President Dean E. Vogel. "The threat of corporate special interests and billionaires who want to push their agenda on our students is very real and will continue, even if the plaintiffs lose this case. We’re going to see this struggle to the end—until our students are no longer used by corporate reformers to convert their millions into billions.”

Gloria Martinez, a special education and National Board Certified teacher at Rowan Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles Unified School District, said, “I find it offensive that private corporations have the ability to hide under false pretenses such as 'Students Matter' in an attempt to undermine public education. These same organizations have put student interests last over and over again, and corporate interests first. Show me a community in need and I will show you a school in need, and with that, a teacher addressing those needs—whether buying supplies, donating money for indigent families, writing grants, being a nurse, psychologist, and so much more. I find it offensive that private interests get to hide behind their money while I am out in the trenches.”

It is expected that no matter which way the judge rules, the losing party will appeal. The Vergara v. State of California trial will then continue, alongside legislative attacks, deceptive ballot initiatives, and now, attempts to legislate through the bench. All of these activities are being funded by wealthy conservatives in their ongoing assault—which they call “education reform”—on public education and teacher rights.

According to reporter Adolfo Guzman Lopes of public radio station KPPC, there were also several well-connected political figures on hand for the closing arguments...
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.

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.

Source:  Students Matter, California Teachers Association, KPCC