Are job protections for teachers a reason why low-income students of color in California don’t do as well in school? This seems to be the provocative question at the heart of Vergara vs. California, which aims to invalidate hundreds of thousands of teachers’ tenure, due process, and seniority rights.
But intelligent people who watch the nation’s education wars may be asking another question: When did it become okay to use the well-being of children as an excuse to go after teachers in court?
Or, as John Thompson, a historian, and teacher, wrote recently in Scholastic, “Are corporate reformers using the courts as a battleground to beat up on employees’ rights instead of helping children?”
Sadly, it looks like the answer to Thompson’s question is a clear “yes.” Even though the outcome of Vergara will have significant effects on the whole country, it is not the first time people have tried to blame teachers for poor student performance. Across the country, people who call themselves “education reformers” are trying to do similar things. They want to privatize public education and weaken the protections that teachers have worked hard to get.
Even though Democrats and Republicans want to change public education, the three-pronged strategy of austerity, privatisation, and demonization is well known to anyone who has been paying attention to the conservative movement over the past few decades. First, you stop giving the government the money and resources it needs to do a good job. Then you say that the private sector is more effective and efficient, so it should have more power. Lastly, you go after public sector workers and the unions that represent them to get rid of opposition. You do this by saying that they hurt the people they are supposed to serve.
The buildup to Vergara is a great example of this sequence. Over the past 10 years, California cut its education budget by a lot, and it has only just started to get better. In 2010-2011, the state ranked 46th in the country for how much it spent on each K-12 student and 50th for how many K-12 students it had per teacher. At the same time, California has been ground zero for people who want to privatise education. These people have spent millions of dollars on school board races, controversial laws like the parent trigger law, and a never-ending push for charter schools.
Now, with Vergara, these groups want to take away basic protections for teachers by making the condescending argument that children should come first (indeed, the name of the group that brought the Vergara suit is the cloying “Students Matter”). This simple claim is a good way to hide a legal case that is based on weak evidence and willful ignorance of the real conditions that affect both children and teachers.