What’s at stake in the Vergara law suit?

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CFT leaders and members, parents and students, join with CTA in a press conference outside the L.A. Superior Court to rebut the arguments of the baseless "Vergara v. the State of California" lawsuit, funded by wealthy conservatives.  The trial began January 27, and closed its arguments in late March in Los Angeles; the judge rendered his decision june 10, 2014. The case, said speakers at the press conference, seeks to divert attention from the real issues in public education in order to demonize teachers.  At the mic is fifth grade teacher Gaby Ibarra from ABC Unified School District. Behind her, from right, CFT president Joshua Pechthalt, CTA president Dean Vogel, parent Martha Sanchez, and college student Kenia Alcocer.

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"It would be very scary to me, if this lawsuit succeeds, to think that I might not have a job next year, not for anything I'd done in the classroom, but because my principal didn't like me, or my clothing, or something I'd said." —Laura Lacar, Gahr High School, ABC Unified School District

Last year a group calling itself “Students Matter,” funded by David Welch, a conservative Silicon Valley millionaire, filed a lawsuit, Vergara v. the State of California. The lawsuit challenges a number of constitutional rights for California’s teachers, including “tenure,” due process rights, and seniority rights during layoffs. The suit, hiding behind a group of students, alleges that these teacher workplace rights infringe the constitutional right of students to an equal education. [See what Gary Ravani has to say about the civil rights rhetoric used by Students Matter; and see CFT president Joshua Pechthalt's op-ed piece in the San Jose Mercury News] CFT and CTA joined the defense last year, challenging Vergara as a “…meritless lawsuit by corporate special interests attacking teacher professional rights.”

 

The lawsuit ignores the real problems of public education

Education Code rules to protect teacher rights from administrative mismanagement are not "unfair" to either students or new teachers. What harms students? Economic inequality, poverty, their parents' joblessness, and underfunding are unfair to students. But this lawsuit ignores these barriers to educational success. The premise of "Vergara" is that public schools are failing, and bad teachers are the reason why. Get rid of the “bad teachers,” and the schools will succeed. This simplistic idea is wrong in a number of ways. Most public schools are successes, by most reasonable measures; and while the role of the teacher is always an important in-school factor, external factors like poverty and underfunding have the greatest impact.

Stripping teachers of their workplace professional rights will harm, not improve, student learning

mike3augAnti-public education “reformers” are forever repeating that rules and regulations make it impossible to fire "bad teachers." Here are the facts. During the first two years of a teacher's career, a lengthy probation period, administrators can fire them for any reason, or for no reason at all. After that, the requirements are for the administrator to document the problem necessitating the teacher's dismissal, and convince two out of three people on a panel of experts to agree. That's it. A teacher's simple right to a hearing before dismissal is not unfair to students. To the contrary: students need a stable, experienced teaching workforce, not a revolving door of educators.

This attack on the teaching profession will make it harder to attract and retain quality teachers

Attracting and retaining teachers has always been one of the biggest problems in the field of education. Teaching is a difficult, underpaid, and too often undervalued profession – and recent attacks like “Vergara” have only worsened these problems. Most teachers leave the field within the first five years. We need to be encouraging teachers to enter the profession and stay—not demonize them. The laws targeted in this case provide due process when a teacher is accused of misconduct or poor performance, and objectivity in times of layoff. These laws benefit the education system as a whole.

“Tenure” protects academic freedom

The right to a hearing before dismissal (what people call “tenure”) became law through the understanding that political pressures and arbitrary actions of administrators could and often did destroy academic freedom: the right to teach to academic standards and curriculum in a balanced fashion, with all points of view aired, rather than through one viewpoint. The need for academic freedom, and therefore for “tenure,” was demonstrated repeatedly, for instance, during the McCarthy era. Note also the case of Sal Castro, an historic figure who advocated for ethnically relevant courses for Latino students in Los Angeles in the 1960s. The district dismissed him essentially for being an advocate for students and he was only able to get his job back when the community organized for mass actions and took over the school board to get him reinstated. Educators play a special role in a democratic society in challenging assumptions and raising difficult questions. This is not true in many countries where the state dictates all.

Seniority is transparent and fair, and not the reason why layoffs occur

Another wrong premise is the assumption in "Vergara" that seniority order dismissal during layoffs means bad teachers are kept while good teachers are dismissed. The problem with layoffs is not seniority. The problem is the underfunding that causes the layoffs—lack of revenues, exacerbated by the ongoing aftereffects of the economic recession. It is more accurate to say low tax rates on the rich has caused our funding crisis for public education, hence layoffs, then to pretend that orderly dismissal rules are "unfair" to new teachers.

Seniority is the only fair, transparent way to administer layoffs. It ensures equal treatment for all teachers. It replaces the arbitrary authority of administrators to rule by whim. Research consistently shows more experienced teachers provide better student learning outcomes than inexperienced teachers. But we all know schools need a mix of younger and more experienced teachers. Younger teachers bring energy and the most recent pedagogy. Older teachers bring wisdom, the knowledge that comes with facing and solving many classroom problems over the years.

The wealthy backers of this suit are not pro-public education; they are anti-union

The funders of "Vergara" do not fit any pro-public education or pro-civil rights profile we know about. They are using civil rights rhetoric to achieve their goal of destroying teacher rights. But look at who they are, and their track record. The backers of this lawsuit—especially David Welch, a charter school entrepreneur—include a who's who of the usual anti-union, anti­ public education suspects (Parent Revolution, Eli Broad) funded by the billionaire’s club and their Astroturf front groups. They are really good at coming up with fair-sounding names, like "Students Matter," or "Students First," which however mask a privatizing, union­ busting agenda. None of these people or organizations were anywhere to be seen during the campaign to pass Prop 30, which, by filling in part of the hole ripped in education funding over the years, stopped layoffs this year, and did more to support equal access to education for all students than anything proposed in this law suit.


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