Other Opinions

Kristin Olsen: Vergara decision is a win for kids

FresnoJune 26, 2014 

Earlier this month a landmark decision came out of Los Angeles County Superior Court that is a huge win for California students and arguably the biggest civil rights victory we've seen in decades.

Specifically, the Vergara v. California verdict stated that California education statutes related to tenure violate equal protection laws afforded under our state Constitution. The decision affirmed that an effective teacher is the most important in-school factor for student success and that current law discourages schools from removing bad actors from the classroom.

Nine public school students filed the Vergara v. California case last year with the help of a nonprofit organization called Students Matter. The attorneys representing these brave students argue that our state's outdated and misguided laws governing the hiring, firing and seniority of teachers violate the California Constitution's guarantee of an equal right to a quality education.

To echo the statements of Judge Rolf M. Treu, the evidence presented proves that the immediate and life-long impact of ineffective teachers in California schools is disproportionately placed on poor and minority students, and it is long past time that we as lawmakers create — and allow for — education policies that set kids up for success.

Study after study has shown that if a good teacher is standing at the front of the class, students learn more. Unfortunately, our current system grants permanent employment status to teachers after just two years and makes firing ineffective and even abusive teachers a time-consuming and costly process. The status quo guarantees a place for bad teachers and, as a mother of three children, that is completely unacceptable.

Let me be clear: California has great teachers that are working hard to inspire students and prepare them for success in school and in life. They deserve to be recognized for their commitment to excellence and outstanding performance. But their reputations should not be dragged down by a system that keeps in place teachers who are failing to make the grade.

Fortunately, Vergara v. California has the potential to be a game-changer for our students.

We now have a golden opportunity to reset the conversation in California about our schools and how to achieve top-ranking status once again; to reach across the aisle and work with an array of stakeholders to create a new, more modern system of teacher hiring and dismissal, a system in tune with the educational needs of our kids and the economic needs of our future.

AB 215, a bill by Assembly Member Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, for which I am the principal co-author, is an important first step toward these goals. It expedites the dismissal process for egregious teacher misconduct cases, and also improves a school's ability to remove ineffective teachers by streamlining the appeal process for dismissal for poor performance.

More needs to be done, but this bill gets us on a good path toward additional education reforms. Gov. Brown has signed this bill into law, and it will become effective Jan. 1.

I previously introduced a bill to make teacher evaluations more meaningful — to create a process that would set clear, useful standards in order to tangibly measure professional growth, using multiple criteria — to give teachers the tools to excel and to ultimately improve student academic performance. Though this particular bill did not pass, I remain committed to the idea that our evaluation standards are in need of reform.

Additionally, consistent with the Vergara ruling, the teacher probationary period should be extended to between three and five years, and we must repeal policies that force school districts to shuffle ineffective teachers from one school to another and that require them to lay off some of their best teachers just because others have worked there longer.

Similar measures have been passed in other states — both conservative and liberal — and it is long past time for California to catch up, for the good of our kids.

I am optimistic that Vergara will set a new tone in education policy that places the needs and successes of children above all else. While AB 215 is an excellent step forward, there are several additional reforms that need to be taken to ensure the best possible education for the children of California, and I will continue working toward that result.


Assembly Member Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, represents the 12th District. She is vice chair of the Assembly Committee on Education.

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