Can Litigation Save American Education?

Next week, the case of Vergara v. California goes to trial. The question being litigated is whether or not the state’s laws on teacher tenure (“permanent employment”), dismissals, and last-in-first-out layoffs disproportionately harm poor minority kids, thereby violating California’s constitution.

Plaintiffs in the case feel they have the evidence to prove this point (see the links above), and so far the courts have acknowledged that their view is at least plausible. Certainly these laws are incompatible with efforts to maximize the quality of the teaching workforce. And it does seem as though they do the most damage in districts and schools serving the most disadvantaged kids. But will a victory by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit do substantial and lasting good?

That’s less obvious. For one thing, these employment practices can be found in many places where they are not codified in state statutes.They are employment guarantees and benefits of the sort that are often sought and obtained by teachers’ unions in collective bargaining with districts. So getting rid of the laws won’t necessarily get rid of the practices.

More broadly, over a dozen states have explicit constitutional provisions demanding that they create “uniform” education systems—a more stringent equality requirement than is contained in California’s constitution—and it’s not at all obvious that this seemingly strict legal guarantee has made any difference in the quality of educational opportunity in those states.

It’s easy to empathize with the desire to see state legal precedents enforced, and bad laws overturned. But neither state constitutions nor legal precedents have been able to secure either the uniformity or the quality of American education systems, and there is no reason to expect that to change no matter how the Vergara case is decided. More than half a century after the victory in Brown v. Board of Education, poor African-American kids are  still disproportionately likely to be assigned to lousy schools. I wrote about this 11 years ago, and little has changed since then. Lawsuits can redress specific legal wrongs, like compelled segregation, but they can’t produce educational outcomes that require the coordination and relentless dedication of thousands or even millions of people, year after year.

For those who really want to maximize the quality of education offered to disadvantaged and minority students—indeed to all students—the best hope is to study the different sorts of education systems that have been tried around the world and across history, and then ensure universal access to the best among them: a free educational marketplace.