First thoughts on California teacher ruling


On Tuesday, a judge ruled against California’s teacher tenure laws. The ruling unleashed a host of emotional responses, from jubilation to despair. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, here are some starting points, with more to come (including repercussions for Minnesota) early next week.

How the Stage Was Set

Officially, Vergara v. California was brought by nine California students challenging specific laws about approving teacher tenure, dismissing teachers, and using seniority during layoffs. However, the students did not bring the case alone. They were supported by Students Matter, an organization that Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch started for the specific purpose of bringing education-related lawsuits like this one. In addition to paying for the premium legal team, Students Matter also ran a sophisticated media operation backing the case.

The Findings in Brief

The ruling does not contradict the principles of tenure, due process, or seniority. Instead, it found that California’s specific statutes translated these principles into practice in ways that ran afoul of the state constitution. The legislature could modify these statutes to address the judge’s concerns without doing away with teacher tenure outright.

Could It Happen Here?

Minnesotans may be asking, “Could it happen here?” That’s an issue I’ll be exploring more on Monday and Tuesday of next week. The short answer, of course, is, “Not exactly,” since our statutes on the various subjects of the case are different from California’s. I’ll provide more analysis both of the specifics of the California ruling and what the parallel issues in Minnesota would be.

The Judicial Activism Charge

Some may be tempted to decry this as tyranny from the bench. We’ve certainly seen plenty of cases of conservatives opposing “judicial activism,” except when judges agree with them. I’d rather not do the same. We’ve seen plenty of cases recently where the courts have stood up for the rights of the less powerful when few other bodies of government would, and it’s important to remember that.


The Vergara case could prove enormously significant in the coming years, as a rallying point for those who want to undermine teachers’ unions and as a model for other wealthy people looking to make their mark on education. A similar challenge would look different in Minnesota, but don’t be surprised to see one.

Further reading