Quality Education Remains Thwarted by Teachers Unions

An article in today’s American Prospect, of all places, offers an in-depth look at just how little progress has actually been made towards restoring quality education to California’s public school students. Because the article appears in a publication that is “dedicated to American liberalism,” and because “American liberalism” depends more than anything else on billions in annual political contributions from government unions, you almost have to read between the lines to realize who the bad guys are.

Nonetheless, “California’s Ed Reform Wars,” by Rachel Cohen, all 3,200 words of it, is a fine piece of work. Read it closely, if you can stomach the facts. The bad guys – a matter of opinion, of course – are the government unions. The victims? California’s students, and the future of this great state.

Covered first is the uncertain fate of the Vergara case, funded by wealthy activists – many of them liberals – in the Silicon Valley. The plaintiffs are public school students whose case was founded on the argument that union work rules, specifically the policies governing tenure, layoff and dismissal policies, cause disproportionate harm to students in low-income communities. During round one, two years ago in a Los Angeles courtroom, reformers were mesmerized by the brilliant closing arguments of the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, along with the ruling by the judge in the case, who emphatically agreed.

That was then. In April of this year, by a 3-0 vote, the California Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the original Vergara v. California decision. The case will now go to the California Supreme Court. Its chances aren’t great.

But shouldn’t elected officials, not the courts, make policy decisions? In a perfect world, that would certainly be true, but in California’s state legislature, as Cohen herself writes, “Following the original Vergara decision, Republican lawmakers introduced a package of three bills to extend the time it would take a teacher to earn tenure, to repeal the “last-in, first-out” statute that makes layoff decisions based on seniority, and to establish an annual teacher evaluation system. These bills, however, got nowhere in the Democratic-controlled statehouse.”

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Because then a democratic Assemblywoman who takes money from government unions, Susan Bonilla, tried to push legislation through that might reform at least some of the employment statutes that protect bad teachers. Cohen writes:

“Bonilla proposed, among other things, giving principals the option of waiting until a teacher’s third or fourth year to grant tenure, and placing poorly performing teachers in a program that would provide increased professional support. If the ineffective teacher received another low performance rating after a year in this program, Bonilla’s legislation would enable schools to fire the teacher through an expedited process.”

Might that be watered down enough? Might that not have a chance? For the children?

Forget it. Despite endorsements including one from the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, the teachers union issued an “action alert” to their members, calling the bill “an all-out assault” by “corporate millionaires and special interests.” The bill was going to go nowhere in California’s union-controlled legislature. So Bonilla tried again. As Cohen reports:

“In June, Bonilla introduced an amended version of her bill, one that would require new teachers to work for three years before becoming eligible for tenure. Her bill no longer included provisions to create a new teacher evaluation system, to require teachers with poor performance reviews to be laid off before those with less seniority, and to remove many of the dismissal rules that administrators found frustrating.”

Not much left there. Just a bill to marginally extend the probationary period before teachers acquire tenure. But still it was opposed by the unions, and it died in committee by a vote of 9 to 2. The two legislators who voted in favor were due to be termed out and therefore could vote their consciences.

When it comes to government unions, perhaps the teachers union most of all, the lack of support for bipartisan reform is not a mystery. Government unions in California collect and spend over $1.0 billion each year, which gives them the ability to financially dominate any election, anytime, anywhere, whenever they choose. But there’s more to it. These unions use their financial and organizational power to anoint not only politicians, but also bureaucrats, teachers, and anyone in the business community who may have any need to work with the government bureaucracy. They can anoint, or they can target. Best friend or worst enemy? Take your pick.

Liberals know this, but they tolerate the teachers union because along with all that money the union gives their candidates, the union political agenda matches their own – bigger government, more regulations. They don’t understand, unfortunately, that more regulations favor big business and destroy entrepreneurs who deliver the competitive innovations that have improved our lives. And they certainly don’t put enough importance on innovation in education.

Someday liberals may care enough “for the children” to stand up to the teachers union. Don’t hold your breath.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

1 reply
  1. Peter says:

    When people care about their own children, politics can change.

    As a former school trustee in Toronto, I witnessed serious teacher incompetence that was fully protected by militant unions.
    I understand that the state of Tennessee requires school boards to test the performance of students at the beginning and end of each school year. If so, it seems that this approach can go a long way towards establishing a fair and effective way to evaluate performance.

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