Education Expert Witnesses Testify in Landmark Case Concerning Teacher Employment

Inna Kraner, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on August 9, 2021

Co-authored with Katelyn Crawford

In Vergara v. California, a landmark case concerning teacher employment, plaintiffs argue that California’s tenure, dismissal, and layoff system violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause by systematically discriminating against low-income children.

The plaintiffs are nine California public school students aged 7 to 17. They are backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch’s non-profit Students Matter.

They seek to overturn five state laws by proving that the state’s employment system hinders students’ constitutional right to quality education.

In their complaint, plaintiffs note that despite California’s celebrated history of innovation in education, the State’s public education system is “failing the very children whose interests they are meant to serve.”

As the New York Times reports:

“At issue is a set of rules that grant permanent employment status to California teachers after 18 months on the job, require a lengthy procedure to dismiss a teacher, and set up a seniority system in which the teachers most recently hired must be the first to lose their jobs when layoffs occur, as they have regularly in recent years.”

Teacher quality is a tremendously critical determinant of student performance. Yet, the plaintiffs claim that California’s Educational Code make it extremely difficult – if not impossible – to fire bad teachers. Utilizing research that finds that low-income children are more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than better-off children, the plaintiffs claim that “poor and minority students are denied equal access to education.

The defendants in the litigation disagree. The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, two major teacher unions, cite “inept district management, drops in state school funding and inadequate teaching conditions ” as the problems, not teacher employment laws. They argue that the laws protect teachers and attract new teachers.

The defendants criticize the litigation, arguing that the matter is for policymakers, not lawyers. Yet, with failed efforts in the Legislature (arguably a result of union-friendly politicians), the Wall Street Journal reports that the lawsuit paves “a novel way to test the long-standing state policies. If successful, the tactic could set an example for those looking to push through similar changes in other states.”

Plaintiffs are calling multiple education expert witnesses to present “compelling evidence regarding the real and appreciable harm that five provisions of the California Education Code impose on all California students, especially low-income and minority students. ”. They will utilize the expert testimony to prove that the quality of teachers can be measured; the quality of teachers does affect a student’s education; and that the contested laws hurt the effectiveness of individual teachers and the public school system as a whole.

Dr. Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist who specializes in researching tax and education policy, took the stand to discuss his recent research on measuring the quality of teachers and their effectiveness in the classroom. He testified that such metrics must be evaluated over an extended period of time.

Dr. Chetty argues that the 16-month window in which teachers are currently evaluated does not provide adequate time to determine either metric. He finds that the “short probationary period has a negative, detrimental effect on student learning.

He also testified that the quality of the teacher has a profound effect on the quality of education that a student receives. Dr. Chetty stated that having “a highly effective teacher generates substantial long-term gains for students…[as such students] will learn more.”

Another education expert witness discussed the “last in, first out” layoff statute.

Dr. Daniel Goldhaber, a Cornell Labor-Economist who specializes in K-12 education policy, regularly writes on the connection between student education and postsecondary education experiences, as well as labor forces within schools.

He testified that the seniority-based layoff policy hurts the quality of education because it retains teachers purely based on hiring schedule, and not merit. Dr.Goldhabor testified that the policy keeps teachers who may not be effective teachers merely because they have seniority. He argues that “a value added method is preferable.”

Sandi Jacobs, the Vice President and Managing Director for the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), explained why the state of California received an overrall grade of D+ on give areas of performance. The expert on national education standards discussed why California failed on delivering well-prepared teachers; expanding the teaching pool; identifying effective teachers; retaining effective teachers; and exiting ineffective teachers.

In their annual State Teacher Policy Yearbook, the NCTQ recommended that California’s Department of Education use “a definition of teacher effectiveness based on student learning to evaluate teacher performance when considering retention, dismissal and tenure decisions. ”

Ms. Jacobs testimony was especially effective as the Yearbook contains a response from California’s Department of Education. Ms. Jacobs stated that California “found the information contained in the yearbook factually accurate ” and was in agreement with the NCTQ’s assessement on the issue.

The case is expected to continue through the end of February. Regardless of the verdict, an appeal to the Supreme Court is likely.

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