Vergara v. California: Marching Toward a Dream Still Denied

Fifty years ago, a quarter of a million people stood in front of the nation's Capitol and demanded an end to systemic job discrimination and voter suppression. The March on Washington followed decades of battles against segregation and disenfranchisement punctuated by lawsuits that tested the nation's commitment to equality. Perhaps the most famous, Brown v. Board of Education invalidated forced segregation of American schools and affirmed the fundamental importance of equal educational opportunity to the future success of children. But, even today, equal educational opportunity is not the reality. That is why Ted Olson, Ted Boutrous, and I represent nine public schoolchildren demanding educational equality of another kind: equal access to effective teachers. At its best, education can be a key factor in fulfilling one of our noblest and most vital missions by ensuring that everyone in our nation's talent pool is prepared to meaningfully contribute to society. Teachers are a crucial component of the quality of education that students receive. Research shows that teacher quality has a greater impact on student achievement than many other factors such as class size, teacher certification requirements, and per-pupil spending. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was greatly blessed to have teachers who had a profound commitment to quality instruction, an appreciation for the impact they would have on my life, and the skill to challenge me to raise and strive to realize my expectations. Not all children are so lucky. Some students in California, particularly low-income African American and Latino children, instead get stuck in classrooms with teachers who, year after year, fail to educate or inspire their students. These persistently low-performing teachers contribute to a devastating and unjustifiable inequality in our public educational system. In Los Angeles Unified, the country's second largest school district, African-American and Latino students are two to three times more likely to have a teacher in the bottom quartile of effectiveness than their white and Asian peers. Research has revealed that Los Angeles schools in which ineffective teachers make up over 50 percent of the teaching staff are clustered in certain parts of the city. And in Oakland Unified School District, the achievement gap between white students and Latino students is the highest of any district in the State. But the worst part of these inequalities is that we know exactly which laws are contributing to and exacerbating the problem. Teacher employment protections in California so far exceed those in other States that dismissing a persistently ineffective teacher is next to impossible so costly, time-consuming, and unlikely to actually result in dismissal that administrators are prevented from even trying. Worse, when budget shortfalls force districts to implement layoffs, the statutes require districts to lay teachers off in reverse order of seniority, with no regard for skills, leadership or past performance in the classroom -- a ludicrous process that forces some districts to lay off their Teachers of the Year. The Vergara v. California plaintiffs are trying to strike down these statutes so that all of California's children, regardless of their race or zip code, can have an equal shot at being educated by effective teachers. The 20-day trial for the lawsuit begins in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, 2014. The men and women who marched on Washington fifty years ago heard Martin Luther King Jr. cry out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, "We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." Once again, we find ourselves in the grip of gradualism -- or even worse -- inertia. But our children deserve more. Our children deserve an education system that puts their needs above all else, that inspires them to continue marching toward a more equal future, and that recognizes the fierce urgency of now.

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