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Back Students and Teachers not Billionaires

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Dealing with impoverished neighborhoods, unsupportive peers, and preoccupied parents, disadvantaged students need a lot of help. Attacking their teachers is no way to improve their educational opportunities, yet this is the rationale behind a trial that will soon have a verdict handed down in Los Angeles, Vergara v. California. Its entire goal is to give school principals greater ability to dismiss experienced teachers with less justification than is needed today. As a teacher, who spent more than 10 full time years in the classroom, I know that the suit is bad for teaching and bad for education.

Ostensibly the law suit was brought by Beatriz Vergara and 8 other students from different cities and grades, although the youngest student was 7 when the suit was filed. The students claimed that statutes governing a teacher’s permanent status, firing and seniority, violate their right under the California constitution to have “substantially equal opportunities for learning,” according to the 1976 ruling in Serrano v. Priest. Why? The statutes purportedly allow ineffective teachers to keep plying their trade. In reality the law suit was backed by several billionaires and the financial interests behind the burgeoning charter school movement which seeks to privatize public education, even though, as seen in a just released Chicago study, students at charter schools do no better than those in traditional public schools.

The root of the lawsuit can be traced back to voter approval in November 2012 of Governor Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30. For seven years, it has raised California’s sales tax by a quarter point and created four high-income tax brackets for taxable annual incomes exceeding $250,000, $300,000, $500,000 and $1,000,000. For those earning more than a million a year, the state income tax was raised 3 full points, to 13.3 percent from its previous 10.3 percent. That’s a $30,000 additional tax bill for every million.

The money went to replenish education funding in the state that had been gutted by the recession-caused budget crisis to the tune of $18 billion. Of these new taxes, 89 percent were allocated to kindergarten through high school, with 11 percent going to community colleges. The money was sorely needed. In 2010-11, the nation’s biggest state was dead last in the number of students per teacher from K-12, up to 50 students per room in some cases; and 46th in K-12 spending per student. Thousands of teachers, counselors, nurses, and staff had all been axed. Entire programs had been eliminated. Over four years, districts across the state had cut their expenditures on books and supplies by a full billion dollars. Despite the pressing need, wealthy donors, including Eli Broad, spent $53.4 million dollars to defeat the initiative, compared to only $300,000 raised to back it. Voters recognized the pressing need and passed it.

Now the billionaires are taking on education again. After failing to get their proposals passed by the legislature, they’ve turned to the courts through Vergara v. California.

The major force behind the trial is Students Matter, a non-profit organization founded by David Welch, 52, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a PhD, not in education, but electrical engineering. His net worth is not public knowledge, but he is said to earn more than $2 million a years as the founder of Infinera Corporation, a manufacturer of high-capacity optical transmission equipment used by the internet. Prior to founding Students Matter in 2012, he showed no involvement in educational policy matters. Students Matter is footing the bill for all of Vergara v. California’s public relations and legal fees, which ran $3 million before presiding Judge Rolf Treu even entered his Superior Court room.

Why does Welch care? The David and Heidi Welch Foundation has given to New Schools Venture Fund which invests in both charter schools and the online charter schools industry. Welch also gave $550,000 to privatization education lobbyist Students First, run by Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C. school chancellor who eliminated teacher tenure in the capitol. Students First is listed as a Vergara v. California backer along with the California Charter Schools Association. Others behind the lawsuit are billionaires Eli Broad through his Broad Foundation and Walmart’s Walton family through the Walton Family Foundation.

The high-powered legal team is led by attorneys Theodore Olson and Theodore Boultrous. Olson first rose to national attention for his work in Bush vs. Gore, where the Supreme Court stopped the 2000 election recount in Florida throwing the disputed election to George W. Bush. As a reward for his service, he was appointed U.S. Solicitor General from 2001-2004. Olson also prevailed in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission where the Supreme Court overturned more than sixty years of federal laws restricting corporate expenditures on elections, unleashing a flood of business money into political races. Boultrous is renowned for successfully defending Walmart in a sexual discrimination suit in which 1 million female workers accused the retailer of denying them raises and promotions.

Vergara v. California seeks to rule against five workplace protection laws that according to the California Teachers Association, “grant permanent status to teachers, provide due process in teacher dismissal proceedings and protect seniority as a component of the layoff process. The suit demands that the court declare each of these statutory protections unconstitutional.”

The complaint in Vergara v. California contends that “the challenged statutes have a disproportionate adverse effect on minority and economically disadvantaged students.” Yet at trial little evidence was presented to back this contention.

Unlike university professors, California teachers do not get tenure. They are initially hired on probationary basis. For their first year and a half their performance is evaluated. Then they are told whether or not at the end of their second year they’ll be granted permanent status. During their first couple of years, they can be let go for any reason. Afterwards, teachers have the right to defend a move to dismiss them before a three-person committee consisting of two teachers and a judge. The plaintiffs contend that the process is too onerous. The facts belie the lawsuit. During his first year, 2011-2012, as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, John E. Deasy oversaw the firing of 99 teachers, a record.

Vergara v. California also attacks the last in / first out layoff requirement that governs school districts when they have to let teachers go during economic downturns. The suit contends that younger, inspirational teachers are laid off instead of incompetent teachers who only have seniority going for them. Teaching is an art that takes years to master. There are few things more satisfying to a teacher than seeing a class suddenly understand a concept because it was explained in a creative, innovative way. That’s why seniority does contribute to the quality of student education.

On the surface, Vergara v. California seems to be just about job security for teachers, but it’s really an frontal assault on the teaching profession, certainly among the most overeducated and undervalued careers available to college graduates. If the plaintiffs win this suit, expect to see fewer people deciding to become public school teachers, because of the uncertainty that will now hang over their futures.

I spent last summer teaching English to Chinese exchange students. To keep my job, I had to steer clear of politics or international affairs. Public school teachers should not have to look over their shoulders to make sure that they aren’t raising uncomfortable questions. That’s a big reason why permanent status matters. Teachers need to have the freedom to challenge their students.

After 2 months, and 52 witnesses, now the case is being decided by Judge Rolf Treu. Let’s hope that he recognizes the suit for what it is, an assault on the tradition of free public education that began in this country in 1635 at Boston Latin School. To educate students between the ages five through 18, each year the U.S. spends more than $500 billion. Through Vergara v. California, the billionaire backers of Vergara v. California want a bigger share of it.

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