SAN FRANCISCO — In the landmark case of Vergara v. California, state Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled last year that tenure and seniority laws in public education had robbed California students of their constitutional right to a high quality public education.
These union rights, earned over many years through the struggles of teachers’ unions, were successfully challenged and removed in what has become another sad chapter in the right wing’s successful campaign against unions throughout the United States.
But no tears were shed at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual conference in San Francisco last month. Rather, the case was presented as a tremendous victory for students. Rather than hear from both sides of the case, participants got to hear from the plaintiffs’ lead counsel Marcellus McRae and witness Bahvini Bhakta, and former Washington D.C. Teachers’ Union President George Parker.
Lest you think Mr. Parker was there to present the unions’ side of the debate, let me assure you he was not. He eagerly praised the court’s ruling, and retold the tired narrative of lazy tenured teachers pulling undeserved paychecks.
The argument Vergara v. California succeeded in making is that seniority and tenure laws keep “grossly incompetent” teachers in classrooms while the more talented, less senior teachers are forced to accept layoffs.
Unfortunately, the question of why the state had run out of money for education — a constitutional right in California — was never asked or explored. It was simply assumed that layoffs were a fact of life, like death or taxes. The question was rather, who should we lay off?
As anyone who has had the unenviable experience of being laid off knows — and I count myself among you — it has very little to do with performance and everything to do with cost.
When I lost my California-based position with Wells Fargo it was to fellow employees in North Carolina. Management made it clear that this cheaper labor was the sole reason I was being forced to leave.
One would have to be extremely naive to think that none of this thinking went into this case against California teachers. Senior teachers clearly cost more than new ones, due to their superior experience.
Yet, if the administration is able to sweep aside tenure, seniority, and much of the complicated process that goes into firing a teacher, there is little monetary incentive to keep the senior educators. This, of course, was also not discussed at the presentation.
The success of Vergara v. California is a result of the argument that the current woes in our education system are the fault of the teachers, and not the education system itself. Questions of poverty, poor funding, underpaid teachers, and lack of parental support are marginalized and seldom discussed.
The myth of the “cushy, tenured teaching job” rings hollow, given that the poor pay teachers receive is extremely well known at this point.
Who goes into teaching because they heard about how much money they could make? If this were true, why aren’t students scrambling to obtain teaching credentials instead of engineering and law degrees?
These questions hardly need to be asked. Everyone knows the answer.
There is a simple and unpopular answer to public education’s poor performance: Money. If the United States wants high quality education it will have to pay for it. Just as we pay for a massive military budget, we will need to use a great deal of resources to attract, retain, and equip the most talented educators out there.
Until we realize this, we will settle for the myth that making educators easier to fire will make them better. Not only is this unlikely to make them better, it may make them much worse.
Meanwhile, in May, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers joined with the State of California in appealing Judge Treu’s ruling. The unions called the suit “baseless,” and pointed out that it did little to help the most vulnerable students, people of color and low- income families.
Photo: CFT – California Federation of Teachers Facebook.