January 31, 2014
The first week of the Vergara vs. California trial is coming to a close, and I have to admit it’s been a hard one. Not only is it difficult as a teacher and a union leader representing other educators to listen to the spin and misinformation that the so-called “expert” witnesses are giving inside the courtroom, but it’s infuriating as well to see the lavish and expensive public relations show that Students Matter is putting on for the media outside.
With the deep pockets of a billionaire Silicon Valley conservative to bankroll the effort, I really shouldn’t be surprised at the endless barrage of media events, press conferences and statements rolling out of the pro-Vergara forces. It’s a slick and well-planned effort spearheaded by Griffin Schein, an equally slick and well-funded LA-based PR shop (which despite its leftist pedigree has no problem promoting Wal-Mart as a past client). Contrary to the image that its backers are so carefully putting forth, Vergara is about as far from a grassroots effort as you can get. This is special interest money, and a lot of it, costumed as a movement of the people.
What does that mean for California’s teachers, who can’t hope to compete with that kind of money? We need to leave the courtroom language inside the courthouse and step forward with the simple and true facts to our parents and communities.
Those of us who have actually worked inside public classrooms know that tenure is a protection that allows the best teachers to do their best work. Part of being an effective teacher is acting as an advocate for kids – working to protect diversity and open dialogue in our classrooms. That is a key aspect of what tenure protects, the ability for teachers to speak and act on behalf of their students without the fear of reprisal from administrators. For every ineffective teacher out there, there are hundreds who fight every day to provide the best possible education for their kids.
And layoffs? Seniority-based layoffs don’t happen when schools are properly funded. Witness this year: few school districts will send layoff notices to any teachers this year, thanks to the passage of Prop 30,. But Prop 30 only fills in about half the funding hole created by the Great Recession. California schools have a desperate need for more teachers. Our classrooms are literally overflowing. Many kindergartens have more than 30 kids, and some high schools don’t even have desks for all the students in their classes. How about we focus on making sure our schools have the funding they need to serve kids and provide quality public education for all? The way to keep the best teachers in our classrooms is to create schools that support teaching. Like any career, mastering the art of being an exceptional teacher takes time and resources. The pro-Vergara forces want to simultaneously argue that an 18-month probation period is too short to evaluate a teacher’s competency, but that experience is of no value and should not be a factor in retaining teachers when layoffs are unavoidable. Maybe they need a lesson in logic.
The truth is that the Vergara lawsuit isn’t about weeding out those few teachers who aren’t performing as they should or even about improving California schools. It’s about a wealthy, elitist Silicon Valley billionaire and a headline-grabbing star lawyer finding new ways to turn schools into profitable charter businesses. Let’s have a real discussion about how to create quality public education for every student in our state, and not allow privatization proponents to hide behind false arguments propped up by expensive expert witnesses. Tenure laws existed in the 1960s and 1970s when California was a leader in public education. In an era when funding has been decimated, schools forced to function on shoestring budgets and students left without basic necessities like counselors and nurses, blaming tenure for the problems in our educational system is like blaming the road for a car accident. These rules have allowed teachers to be active advocates for their students, on the forefront of civil rights issues, immigration issues and public policy and ending them does nothing but hurt kids.