The Vergara Era, Part 3: Labor, Civil Rights, and Education Reform

Whether I'm at a rally or a dinner party, I often hear this series of questions: So, you're pro reform and pro union. But, isn't there an insurmountable conflict of interest with the teacher's union and education reform? What incentive does the union have to change policies that may protect teachers while not protecting a student's right to quality education? That's when I cite our labor movement's long and proud history championing the rights of the marginalized -- women, people of color, children, the disabled, just to name a few. Then, I pose my own admittedly rhetorical question: Can you pursue reform at any meaningful scale without partnering with our unions?

I feel particularly passionate about this topic because I'm a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement, which was fought on the backs of people of color. I'll also be the first to admit this movement was bolstered by the labor movement. Also important, the civil rights movement wouldn't have reached critical mass without white men and women willing to take on political risk to challenge a system that they benefited from and that violated the rights of others. This is where the promising intersection of labor, civil rights and reform lies. As a black educator, I've always felt that teachers should change district, labor and state policies that unintentionally perpetuate inequity for our students.

Over the past few weeks, we looked at both the historical context of the landmark Vergara v California lawsuit, and the union perspective on Vergara. And on August 28, Judge Rolf Treu made his final ruling on the case. Judge Treu upheld his original decision that the statutes governing teacher tenure, lay-offs and dismissals violate the constitutional right of children to a high-quality education. The state has filed its appeal, and it's likely that the court battles will continue on for quite some time.

Waiting passively for a court ruling is no way for teachers to own the education reform movement. Teachers want to seize this opportunity to redefine their profession, to redefine what their union can do and be, and to proactively put forward student-centered, teacher-generated solutions.

In an internal poll conducted by Educators 4 Excellence - Los Angeles (E4E-LA), over 60 percent of respondents--a strong majority--ranked "re-imagining tenure as a meaningful professional milestone" as an area of high priority. As Ron Taw, E4E-Los Angeles member and union leader, articulated beautifully in our last entry, "This ruling presents a rare opportunity for actual classroom educators to own our profession and lead the nation in creating an innovative, student-focused and teacher-driven system for how we hire, evaluate and retain educators."

The decision is also an opportunity to prove that the labor movement can lead on upholding the constitutional rights of students. Districts like San Jose Unified and Lucia Mar right here in California, as well as others around the nation, show us that student-focused, union-district collaboration can produce outcomes that hold sacred the rights of children while also honoring the work of teachers. And in fact, this kind of approach can also better match the desires of teachers. A new poll from Education Next shows that a minority -- only 41 percent -- of teachers favor both awarding tenure and granting tenure without taking into consideration student performance.

Teacher members at Educators 4 Excellence -- Los Angeles are embracing the moment and putting forward teacher-driven, student-focused recommendations for how our policymakers can and should reimagine teacher tenure laws. Over the coming weeks, a group of teachers -- an E4E Teacher Action Team -- will meet to study the research, discuss their classroom realities and poll their colleagues, administrators, students and families about the impact of tenure. In January, they will put forward their recommendations for the California legislature on how to improve the tenure process.

They bring with them a diversity of perspectives and areas of expertise. The Teacher Action Team includes tenured teaching veterans with 30 or more years of experience, and teachers who do not yet have tenure. It includes teachers in union leader positions and coordinators who help hire, evaluate and retain teachers on their campus. These teachers reflect the diversity of their profession, but are united by a belief in the role and obligation of teachers to lead on changing policies that fail to elevate students and teachers. After all, most teachers understand that our protections aren't real if they don't protect the very reason we teach -- our students.