Are job protections for teachers to blame for educational underachievement among low-income students of color in California? That's the provocative question ostensibly at the heart of Vergara vs. California, which seeks to invalidate the tenure, due process and seniority rights of hundreds of thousands of educators.
Astute observers of the nation's escalating education wars, however, may be asking another question: When did it become permissible to use the welfare of children as a fig leaf for an all-out legal attack on teachers?
Or, as historian and teacher John Thompson wrote recently in Scholastic, "Are corporate reformers unabashedly using the courts as a battleground for battering employees' rights, as opposed to helping children?"
Sadly, the answer to Thompson's question appears to be an unequivocal yes. For while the outcome of Vergara will have far-reaching national implications, it is hardly unique in its attempt to scapegoat teachers for sub-par educational performance. Similar efforts are underway across the country, as some so-called "education reformers" seek to simultaneously privatize public education and weaken the hard-won protections of teachers.
Though efforts to remake public education have attracted both Democrats and Republicans, the three-pronged strategy of austerity, privatization and demonization is familiar to anyone who has watched the conservative movement over the past several decades. First you starve government of the resources needed to perform at a high level. Then you claim that the private sector is more efficient and effective, and should be given greater authority. Finally you target public sector workers and the unions that represent them in order to clear the field of opposition, claiming that they are hurting the very people they are charged with serving.
The buildup to Vergara is a perfect example of this sequence. Over the past decade, California saw massive cuts in its education budget, which has only recently started to recover. In 2010-11, the state was 46th in the nation in K-12 spending per student, and 50th in the number of K-12 students per teacher. At the same time, the Golden State has been ground zero for education privatizers, who have spent millions of dollars on school board races, legislation such as the controversial parent trigger law and the relentless effort to advance charter schools.
Now, with Vergara, these forces are seeking to strip teachers of fundamental protections, using the patronizing argument that children must come first (indeed, the name of the group that brought the Vergara suit is the cloying "Students Matter"). That facile assertion is convenient cover for a legal case predicated on weak evidence and willful blindness toward the actual conditions that impact both children and teachers.
To succeed, the plaintiffs in Vergara must prove that the California Educational Code systematically discriminates against low-income children. Because no evidence exists to support this claim, plaintiffs are relying on anecdotes as well as theories that have come under heavy fire from education experts.
Meanwhile, in their zeal to punish teachers, Vergara's supporters conveniently ignore the fact that educational outcomes have been pummeled by funding cuts for virtually everything in public schools. Teachers, counselors, nurses, deans, assistant principals, office staff -- all have fallen victim to the budget axe.
None of this seems to register with Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch, the force behind Vergara. He and other supporters of the suit insist that teachers should be able to transcend such conditions.
It hardly seems a coincidence that Welch went knocking on the doors of a big money corporate law firm whose clients have included Walmart (defending them in a huge employment discrimination case), Chevron (defending them in a $27 billion environmental suit) and Dole Food Company (defending them in a farmworker sterility case), among others. The firm's involvement would seem a natural fit for a case that would eviscerate the rights of workers.
Perhaps educator Mitchell put it best: "How did we get to a point where corporate powers can cherry-pick some theoretical research about a complex problem and strike down imperfect but basically good laws, without offering alternatives?...Why should a few rich people's opinions on the causes of failure in poor schools be allowed to trump social science and the democratic rights of educators?"
Important questions, indeed.