On June 10, judge Rolf Treu tentatively decided to do away with statutes that provide teachers with job security in the Vergara v. California court case. Treu’s ruling sided with nine student-plaintiffs who argued that low-income students in California receive a substandard education because of teacher tenure laws.
Treu stated that ineffective teachers were allowed to stay in the educational system too long because it was too costly to remove them. He also argued that the time for teachers to acquire tenure was too short — within two years — and that teacher layoffs, because of seniority, adversely affected low-income students.
The tentative decision ignited debate, but as the flame dies down, interesting facts arise. For example, four of the student-plaintiffs had teachers who were in schools that had no tenure.
There is also a question about the number of alleged incompetent teachers. Relying on the testimony of expert witness Dr. David Berliner, Treu declared that approximately 275,000 teachers are incompetent. In a post-trial interview with slate.com, Berliner called that a “guesstimate.”
On the same day as Treu’s ruling, the U-T generated an editorial titled: “Judge’s ruling a landmark for California schools.”
The editorial says “the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers will depict reformers who focus on teacher competence…as stooges serving a shadowy corporate conspiracy to destroy middle-class-jobs.”
In this manner, the editorial sweeps under the carpet the involvement of Silicon Valley multimillionaire David Welch, who financed the court case.
The 990 tax form for Welch’s nonprofit was filed under the name “Students Matter” for “The Students First Foundation.” As early as 2012, the organization spent $1,472,270 funding the Vergara litigation and $491,758 doing “outreach in support of the litigation.”
What is Welch’s angle?
According to the news website, Capital & Man, “David and Heidi Welch Foundation has given to NewSchools Venture Fund, which invests in charter schools and the cyber-charter industry…. Welch also supported Michelle Rhee’s education-privatizing lobby StudentsFirst…”
The U-T also wrote “Because of the wealth and clout of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, the system routinely leads to veteran teachers clustering at whiter schools in more affluent communities.”
A post-trial brief avers that districts decide where teachers are placed: “Plaintiffs’ administrator witnesses acknowledged the irrefutable point that their districts maintain complete discretion to assign and transfer their teachers within their district as they see fit.”
Sweetwater Union High School District veteran teacher Helen Farias offers this anecdotal view: “I work at Palomar Continuation school. We serve the district’s most vulnerable students and are a Title One school. Of our 23 teachers, we have 3 district ‘Teachers of the Year’ on staff and the average teacher has 10 to 15 years’ experience.”
The U-T also says unions will argue “that job protections are essential because of capricious school bureaucrats.”
Do districts act capriciously?
Some readers who have followed the travails of the Sweetwater district may recall community members, teachers, and staff alleging intimidation tactics in the district.
Farias writes: “During the crisis at [Sweetwater], it has been the protections that due process provides that have allowed teachers to speak out against the district’s corrupt administration. A more personal example: A few years ago, we had an administration at [Palomar High School] that was dismissive of teacher concerns regarding student drug use on campus. In fact, the assistant principal at the time said we should tolerate the pot smoking as ‘pop culture.’ Because of due process, PHS teachers spoke out against the administration and were able to secure a change.”
Farias also provides an example of the positive effect tenured teachers can bring to low-income schools:
“Often, politics at a disadvantaged school are more intense than at a more affluent school. Typically, parents are more involved at the latter and serve as a checks and balances for administration. At disadvantaged schools, it is typically the teachers who speak out against administrative decisions like eliminating art from the curriculum to replace with test prep, or shortening the school day for the students who are struggling the most (both of these actually almost happened at PHS, but teachers fought it and won). If I feared I would lose my ability to provide for my own family, I would never be able to advocate for my students as I've described.”
Judge Treu’s decision has been compared to the civil rights victory of Brown vs. Board of Education, a 1954 ruling that forced schools to racially integrate. But there are others who worry the Vergara decision will deflect attention from the deepening crisis of segregation and in California.
The UCLA Civil Rights Project titled “Segregating California’s Future” released a report in May. The authors, Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee, argue that since the Brown v. Board decision, segregation and poverty have intensified.
Dr. Gary Orfield, a research professor and codirector of the Civil Rights Project, offered the Reader comments on the subject of equality and the Vergara ruling:
“…the Vergara decision will not be the final word on teacher tenure in California…and is unlikely to have much impact on the educational inequality for Latinos in the state…. The decision is very brief and cites very little evidence and goes far beyond what he [Treu] defines as the violation…. I do think that there should be a longer requirement of service before tenure is granted and that dismissal should be much less complex and protracted, but I also think that teachers, including many Latino teachers, need and deserve some protection from arbitrary administrators and crazy policies and requirements that have no basis in research. One only needs to look inside the operation of charter schools without unions to find examples of really arbitrary administrators and teachers without rights.…
“Our problems are much deeper on the teaching front — we have not made the profession attractive to our best students, we have dumbed it down drastically in many schools where test prep has often replaced interesting instruction that is interesting work for teachers, and we are now often using scientifically invalid measures of learning growth in evaluating individual teachers….”