… and continue to block any and every meaningful reform the California state legislature has to offer.
On May Day (how fitting!) the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers filed their appeal of the Vergara decision. In that 2014 ruling, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down California’s teacher tenure, layoff and dismissal laws, claiming that they deny students access to a quality public education, especially those from poor and minority families.
In a PR move, union bosses have been taking their rather lame case to the media. CTA president Dean Vogel somehow managed to maintain a straight face when he stated, “This suit was never about helping students. As educators we believe every student has the right to a caring, qualified and committed teacher and that is why we are appealing the judge’s misguided decision.” Then, tossing in some class warfare for flavor, he added that the judge failed to take into consideration “the impact of a severe lack of funding and growth in poverty which are some of the most important factors impacting student achievement.” (Actually, most studies have shown that the most important factor in student achievement is the effectiveness of the teacher.)
CFT President Josh Pechthalt, avoiding the merits of the case, did his typical “class warfare first, last and always” song and dance. “Wealthy anti-union advocates like David Welch, the funder of this suit, are obscuring the real problems of public education, which are best addressed by restoring funding to programs that ensure student success. It is not coincidental that the law firm he retained is one of corporate America’s leading anti-worker, anti-union firms.” (Increasing funding doesn’t “ensure” anything. Far from it. We have almost tripled education spending in forty years with nothing to show for it.)
A confident Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said she fully expects the California Court of Appeal will return education policy to where it belongs: the legislature. “Every student deserves a highly effective teacher in his or her classroom. The California legislature has worked to provide fair due process protections that ensure quality teachers are in every classroom. Due process prevents good teachers from being fired for bad reasons, and it protects teachers’ professional judgment and academic freedom.” (“Due process long ago morphed into “undue” process; even pedophiles have a hard time getting the ax.)
Perhaps the NEA’s leader’s comments are most galling of all. First she seems to forget that a whole load of ugly Jim Crow laws were eradicated by the courts. I highly doubt that Eskelsen García would have groused about judicial activism in those cases. (By the way, Judge Treu did not make any laws; he just ruled that several laws on the books are unconstitutional.) Another reason her “policy belongs in the legislature” comment is nonsense is that CTA has a lock on that body. With its forced dues scheme, every public school teacher in the Golden State is made to fork over on average more than $1,000 a year, with much of that money going to buy legislators. Parents, kids and taxpayers have no mechanism to match the union’s wildly unfair advantage. So in essence, Eskelsen García is forcing us to play cards – but only with a deck that the unions have carefully stacked. It is commonly said that CTA is an important wing of the Democratic Party in California. It’s more accurate to say that the Democratic Party is really a wing of the powerful California union.
In fact, prior to Eskelsen García’s statement, several California state legislators already had attempted to pass legislation with Vergara in mind.
• Assembly Bill 1044 (Assemblywoman Catherine Baker, R-Dublin) would have eliminated “last-in-first-out” by declaring seniority cannot be the sole factor governing layoffs.
• AB 1248 (Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside) would have extended from two to three years how long it takes for teachers to win tenure and would allow administrators to revoke tenure if teachers have consecutive poor performance reviews.
• AB 1078 (Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank) would have increased the number of ratings teachers could be assigned and would require educators to be evaluated in part based on student test scores.
Not surprisingly, these bills – modest as they were – never really had a chance. Each one was summarily killed in the CTA owned-and-operated education committee in the State Assembly.
Then there was AB 1495, introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. Whereas existing state law calls for two teacher ratings – satisfactory and unsatisfactory – Weber’s bill would have added a third teacher rating of “needs improvement” to the state’s minimum requirement for evaluations. It would also call on districts to put teachers who are not rated fully satisfactory first in line for professional coaching. This sensible bill garnered support from the likes of EdVoice, Students Matter and StudentsFirst – all Sacramento student advocacy groups. But CTA’s cronies in the Assembly education committee snuffed out this bill too. That prompted Weber, no shrinking violet, to lash out at her fellow Democrats. As reported by LA Weekly’s Hillel Aron, she said, “When I see what’s going on, I’m offended, as a senior member of this committee, who has probably more educational background and experience than all ya’ll put together on top of each other.” She added, “Obviously, it was orchestrated by the teachers union to not let the bill out. It was purely political.” Shirley surely gets it.
There is one bill, however, that the teachers unions have not taken a position on … yet. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, has concocted SB 499. Her teacher evaluation bill requires teachers to be evaluated in part on student progress, including such objective measures as testing, but – and it is a very big but – mandates that the specifics be worked out as part of the union-school district collective bargaining agreement. However, giving unions more negotiating power over evaluations would be a problem said Nancy Espinoza, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association in testimony before the Senate Education Committee a couple of weeks ago. “We are going from developing evaluation standards to negotiating them. That is a tremendous change.” It creates opportunities, she said, for teachers unions “to leverage evaluation standards related to student achievement for gains related to salary” and would likely increase the frequency of an impasse in negotiations “and concerted actions like strikes.”
Also weighing in against the bill is a coalition of groups including Democrats for Education Reform and the California Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to Liu, it mentioned “Offering unions this power affords them the opportunity and incentive to water down teacher evaluations.”
StudentsFirst called the bill misguided, claiming it ignored research on what makes an evaluation effective, and puts the state at risk of losing federal support.
Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, called retaining school boards’ authority over evaluation criteria a non-negotiable “bright-line issue.”
In defending her bill, Liu said that “buy-in from teachers” is critical for evaluations to be useful in helping teachers improve. “Teachers need to be at the table to discuss goals of an evaluation. Their voice needs to be heard and heard loudly.”
But buy-in from teachers is not important in Sacramento. The only buy-in there that matters is from the teachers unions. Liu’s – and every other education bill – is in the unions’ hands. Until the Vergara appeals are exhausted, that is the unpleasant fact of life.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.