A Los Angeles judge has declared California’s teacher tenure laws to be unconstitutional because, he alleged, they harm low-income students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom. In the case of Vergara vs. California, purportedly brought by a group of minority students but in fact initiated by a billionaire-funded organization called “Students First,” Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the laws “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education.”
It was a well-aimed blow against teachers’ unions, and in his summation the judge made it clear he was perfectly aware of its political implications. Within an hour of the verdict, Michelle Rhee, head of the StudentsFirst lobbying group, had announced a new website to put pressure on lawmakers in other states to abolish or weaken tenure and other teacher job protections.
Education is a multi-billion dollar public enterprise, and the plutocracy are anxious to privatize it by creating charter schools that will siphon off more affluent students, leaving low-income students to rot in defunded school systems, and to monetize the testing process. The rich intend to run education more “efficiently” by applying corporate methods of social control, such as the “value-added” metric, to teachers; tenure – which means teachers cannot be fired without due process – and union strength are primary obstacles to their strategy.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Treu’s ruling consistently echoed the arguments of the corporate legal team hired to bring the suit, crucially accepting that teachers can be evaluated fairly through a statistical analysis based on student test scores, despite testimony that empirical research shows little correlation between teachers’ effectiveness in class and students’ scores.
Even opponents of tenure found the judge’s opinion to be flawed. Law professor Orin Kerr commented in the Washington Post that it “would seem to require evidence of a causal connection between the laws challenged and the quality of teachers. But we don’t hear about that evidence. Instead, the judge notes that there are a lot of bad teachers in California. He then says that ‘on the evidence presented at trial’ the laws led to the bad teachers and therefore trigger strict scrutiny. But the judge doesn’t say what that evidence is. … I would think that a constitutional challenge here requires evidence, not ideology.”
Although he had scant evidence to support his opinion, the judge threw his legal authority behind the corporate narrative blaming teachers for failing schools, conspicuously comparing his ruling to the seminal desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Politico noted: “In adopting the language and legal framework of the civil rights movement, Treu gave a major boost to school reformers from both parties who have long argued that the current system dooms poor and minority students to inferior educations.”
There is an ideological campaign going on here to cloak attacks on public sector unions in the language of liberalism, appropriating terms like “social justice,” “civil rights,” and “equality” to convince the public that the interests of teachers and students are opposed. Educator Adam Bessie points out: “In much the same way that vouchers and charters have been sold via civil rights language, so too was Vergara v. California argued in court and marketed to the public as a moral imperative, with a solidly social justice lexicon, composing a compelling narrative which is attractive to liberals, while at the same time, appealing to economic conservatives who have long worked to abolish teacher tenure. …
“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hailed the verdict a victory, employing the same civil rights framing he has used in selling President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. In other words, Vergara doesn’t just represent the point of view of billionaire businessmen, conservative scholars, nor an isolated, ‘activist judge’ – it now reflects the perspective of my Department of Education, and the President himself, who now believe that ‘bad teachers’ are the root of our educational challenges, rather than the wide-spread poverty and systemic racism which the original civil rights leaders fought against, and which still exist today.”
The significance of Vergara is that Silicon Valley billionaires have now successfully used litigation to push through political changes they could not achieve through the democratic process. Cal Poly history professor Ralph Shaffer explains that it is the culmination of a sustained campaign against California’s teacher tenure law. He writes: “In 2005 the anti-public education forces unsuccessfully attacked tenure with Proposition 74 under the slogan ‘Put the Kids First.’ This year the lawsuit masqueraded under the banner ‘Students Matter.’ If students really matter, the ‘reformers’ would attack genuine problems. But their real goal is to purge teachers whom they consider a threat to their reactionary view of American education. Prop. 74 was defeated by a sizable margin in 2005. This time the so-called reformers have achieved an even greater goal, wiping out entirely the tenure law. They didn’t have to face the possibility of voter rejection, they won their victory by the decision of a single judge.”
In 2008 the $16 billion budget shortfall California experienced as a result of the banking crisis led to thousands of teachers being laid off, many of them in low-income school districts. But plutocrats who want to reform education do not propose getting more resources into the schools. As teacher David Cohen notes, despite the huge sums spent on legal action, “Students Matter has done nothing that will put a needed book or computer in a school. Not one wifi hotspot. Not one more librarian, nurse, or counselor.”
The founder of “Students Matter” is David F. Welch, who in 2013 made $2.39 million in the fiber optics communications industry and lives in one of Silicon Valley’s most exclusive areas. But he is not the only billionaire to take an interest in the California education system. A heterogeneous group of rich individuals – including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, pomegranate juice titan Lynda Resnick, anti-Obama mega-donor A. Jerrold Perenchio, and the widow of Steve Jobs – broke all records for spending by outside groups last year in the Los Angeles Board of Education elections.
The LA Times reported that “this group united in Los Angeles behind education issues that have become national in scope, including the growth of publicly funded charter schools and the use of student test scores in teacher performance evaluations. Most want to reduce job protections for teachers and support the education agenda of the Obama administration. Some even want to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers. They believed that a successful stand in the L.A. Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system and a hotbed of unionism, would have a sweeping effect.”
Teacher’s resistance to these corporate strategies is growing in school districts across America: in Portland, Oregon, teachers came within days of a strike before reaching an agreement that includes the hiring of 150 new teachers and cutting back the extent that teacher evaluations depend on test scores; in Chicago teachers in some schools refused to administrate the Illinois Standard Achievement Test, preferring to teach instead; and in Massachusetts teachers elected a new union president pledged to roll back high-stakes testing, field testing, and teacher evaluations.
In California, teachers are preparing for a struggle modeled after the successful Chicago Teachers Union’s campaign for community support. Adam Bessie reaches this conclusion: “The Vergara verdict must push teachers to make stars of themselves, by reclaiming their role as public servants working on behalf of social justice, working on behalf of students, working on behalf of communities and the country for the public good, working towards civil rights, and better opportunities for all students – or, it will signal the concluding act in public education, and a shot at the American Dream for all students.”