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A year ago, the Vergara v. California case invigorated school reformers and inflamed teachers unions nationwide.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu found laws governing how teachers are hired and fired put a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers in front of students most in need of strong instruction. That is, students living in poor neighborhoods are denied equal access to a quality education.


Plaintiffs in the case, a group of nine disaffected California students and a heavyweight cast of attorneys, argued that teacher tenure was offered too soon in California: A teacher here goes up for tenure after 16 months, too soon to tell whether they’re capable of leading our kids.

And once teachers earn tenure, labyrinthine dismissal policies make it extraordinarily difficult and costly to remove them. Last-in-first-out rules say the least senior teachers are first to go in a layoff environment, regardless of quality.

Treu agreed with the students, but stayed the ruling, meaning nothing will change until an appellate court reviews the case, and then only if it upholds the decision.

Toward that end, last month the defendants filed an appeal. The defendants, which include the state and California’s two largest teachers unions, argued that Treu had no grounds to interfere with laws that were put in place by the Legislature. Further, they argued, the plaintiffs never actually proved the current system inflicts real harm on kids.

In a brief filed this week, the plaintiffs shot back, saying the defendents are asking the court to essentially “turn a blind eye to severe educational inequalities that flow inexorably from excessive teacher job privileges — perks secured through the legislative process by ‘well-funded’ and politically connected adults at the expense of children.”

Oral arguments in the appeal are expected by late September, but it’s difficult to pinpoint when the case will wrap up – or, if the plaintiffs are successful, when changes could take place. During a press call, attorneys for the plaintiffs said the case could take anywhere from six months to upwards of a year to be resolved.

Vergara is a big deal, if for no other reason than it challenges teacher protections that for years have been perceived as ironclad.

But if it’s true that schools with students who need the most intensive supports – due to language barriers, poverty or traumatic home lives – get the teachers who are least equipped to support them, then it’s worth taking a look at the systems that contribute.

Question: I’m interested in how teachers are assigned to schools in San Diego Unified. I know they had a “post and bid” system, which allowed teachers to bid for the schools they wanted. Since the ‘Vergara’ decision, I wonder if San Diego Unified has made any changes in their policy.  – Jere McInerney, former teacher, principal and assistant superintendent

This is an important question. Let’s start with the quick explainer on the post-and-bid system. Twice a year, schools post openings they’ll have the following year, and teachers can apply for them.

The rub is that principals can’t just choose whomever they’d like for the spot. Under the terms laid out in teacher contracts, principals can only pick from a pool of five teachers, comprised of the most senior educators with the right credentials.

There are a few exceptions. If teachers are bumped from schools due to program closures or declining enrollment, or if they’re returning from leave, they’ll have priority for the next year.

In the second round of hiring, the district’s human resources department steps in and matches teachers and principals, even if the two don’t care for each other. Through it all, the system is driven by seniority.

Most everyone recognizes the system is problematic. Teachers can be peeled away from kids and parents  with whom they’ve built relationships, and principals can get saddled with teachers who aren’t right for the school.

Last year, when Lindsay Burningham was stepping into her position as union president, she told me the system wasn’t perfect, but determining placement by seniority was fairer than looking at subjective criteria, like teacher performance.

But it also highlights a bigger problem: The system allows for teachers with more experience to move to schools in more affluent neighborhoods, where students are more likely to have stable home lives and college-educated parents.

Schools in poorer neighborhoods, on the other hand, will get the newest teachers, those who have the least experience dealing with challenging students or discipline issues. This is a point the district itself once made – albeit accidentally.

In a way, this is the very situation Vergara plaintiffs seek to rectify. But even if Treu’s decision is upheld, the changes wouldn’t affect the post-and-bid system. San Diego Unified and the union have no plans to change it, either.

None of this is to say the Vergara outcome won’t have an impact. But neither is the case a panacea for the things that truly matter: better teachers – and more of them – in every school.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Waiting for Kindergarten (Medium)

When his son was 3, Gerard Sychay would drive past a popular magnet school in Cincinnati and see parents, who’d been standing there for weeks, wait in line to enroll their kids in the kindergarten program.

The enrollment process at this school is bananas. A number of seats are determined by a random lottery, but the rest go to parents on a first-come, first-serve basis. Hence the line.

“What a fucking mess,” Sychay said to himself at the time. But a few years later, it was him waiting in line. For 16 days.

This story is a must-read for any parent whose kids are nearing kindergarten. Yes, it’s a about a specific school in Cincinnati. But Sychay asks some questions that are relevant to all of us: “Earlier I asked: when there are more kids than spots in a popular school, how do you decide which kids get in? But shouldn’t the question be: why are there so few quality kindergarten spots in the first place?”

• Is Special Education Racist? (The New York Times)

For years the assumption has been that black children are overrepresented in special education services.

The thinking is that due to inherent biases, teachers are more likely to see black students as suffering from learning disabilities. Labeled “special ed,” these students become even less likely to see themselves as capable learners.

But a new study throws a wrench into this theory. According to two researchers, black children are actually less likely to be placed into special education services once you adjust for contributing factors like family income or educational levels.

If true, it demonstrates a disparity that’s equally risky: If black children are less likely to receive special education services, they won’t get the supports they need and will have a worse chance of succeeding academically.

• California Assembly Approves Stricter Vaccine Mandate (Los Angeles Times)

Whole Foods shoppers, you’ve been put on notice. Just kidding. But seriously.

As the L.A. Times writes, in one of the most controversial items taken up by the Legislature this year, parents will no longer be able to opt their kids out of vaccinations based on religious or personal beliefs.

It’s comes down to a question of how much power the government should have when determining what’s right for an individual family. But it’s also about a parent’s right to not expose their children to illnesses that wouldn’t be a concern if not for the parents who opted out of a simple vaccination. The bill now heads to the state Senate, then Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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