Vergara Big Win for California Kids, But Should We Worry about Courts' Role?

Yesterday it was belated high fives all around for a defensive legal victory here in Colorado, as a Denver judge dismissed a union-backed lawsuit to enshrine harmful tenure protections. For anyone in the K-12 education world who may have been sleeping under a rock for a few days, you may not have heard that good policy similarly prevailed Tuesday in the California courts.

I’m talking about the Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s decision in the Vergara case. Nine student plaintiffs, backed by an advocacy group called Students Matter, won their claim that California’a particularly egregious tenure and dismissal laws led to “grossly ineffective instruction” particularly in low-income schools. If higher courts agree, the state’s laws could be thrown out and the legislature made to rewrite them.

It seems apparent to me we have two major issues at play here, potentially in conflict with one another. First, from a policy perspective, the clear and resounding victory has these little legs running and jumping for joy! Come along with me and survey the cheering voices:

I could go on, but you get the point. On the other side, the University of Colorado’s Kevin Welner (writing as director of the union-funded National Education Policy Center) mustered up concern, saying that he “can’t help but feel troubled by the attack on teachers and their hard-won rights.” But his “silver lining” is a buoyed hope that the courts will become more engaged in solving educational inequities and problems. On this point, he and Biddle appear to be in close agreement.

Take it as proof that there is a second issue of concern, namely what Vergara means as precedent for the role of courts crafting education policy. A valuable and well-informed caution comes from a piece published just before this Tuesday’s Vergara decision. Over at Education Next, Joshua Dunn and Martha Derthick expressed strong sympathy with the California lawsuit’s policy goals before strongly noting:

…should California’s courts accept the group’s legal rationale, which hinges on disparate-impact analysis, the floodgates could open for litigation calling for even greater judicial control over California’s schools. Anyone could challenge any law, however neutral in design, with a claim that it was somehow related to an unequal outcome. The absence of a limiting principle raises the possibility that a random 4th grader in Barstow could sue to have his teacher fired because he thinks she is ineffective.

The analysis certainly gives me pause about possible future consequences. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m still pleased about the outcome of a court decision favoring students’ needs over bad education policies propped up by special interest labor groups. I just have to wonder: What does it all mean, and where will it go next?