There are a lot of things you could say. Massive budget shortfalls. Buildings in a state of disrepair. Inadequate infrastructure and facilities. A massive disparity in funding between districts with haves and districts with have-nots. Insufficient access to technology. Or perhaps even an unsafe environment with a constant, low-level threat of overhanging violence.
But if you're a group of Silicon Valley billionaires and corporate moguls desperately trying to figure out how to privatize California's public education system in the face an unwilling public and an unwilling legislature, you might come up with a different answer to the biggest threat facing such children: due process for teachers. And then you just might found a shiny nonprofit as a front and hire a high-powered legal team to file a lawsuit to get the courts to eliminate those due process protections.
Sounds ridiculous? It's not. It's happening right now on the West Coast, where the Vergara v. California trial is in full swing.
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The lawsuit is funded by a group called Students Matter, which is headed up by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch and counts among its supporters notable figures in the anti-union, pro-charter, school privatization movement such as Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst and Eli Broad. Students Matter has brought on the legal team headed by Ted Olson, best known for being President George W. Bush's Solicitor General and winning the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case that overturned Proposition 8 and restored marriage equality to California. It seeks to overturn five basic laws that allow teachers to be flexible and dynamic in the classroom, including tenure protections and the right to a fair hearing in case of accusations of misconduct. The suit alleges that these laws violate the California Constitution by denying children in public schools their constitutionally given right to a quality public education.
This suit seems ridiculous on its face: in order to prove their case, it seems like the plaintiffs would have to prove that eliminating these protections would result in objectively better teachers, which seems like a hard case to make. And even though Students Matter has carefully selected as plaintiffs students from underprivileged backgrounds who were allegedly harmed by laws that allowed "underperforming teachers" to stay in the classroom, the suit would have to prove not just that these particular students were harmed, but that the harm that was done to these nine students should compel the state to void these five laws, regardless of the systemic effects. And if the suit succeeds on those merits, there could be very serious national consequences. As Karoli Kuns writes at Crooks and Liars:
Teacher evaluation is controversial for a number of reasons, most having to do with unionbusters' goals to point at tenured teachers as ineffective in order to clear the decks for the next wave of billionaire-backed TFA candidates. There is no agreement about how such evaluations should be done, and plenty of argument about how they shouldn't be.And let's make no mistake: this lawsuit has nothing to do with guaranteeing a quality public education, and everything to do with trying to eliminate what the supporters of Students Matter believe is the biggest obstacle to a privatized education system. California's schools were among the best in the nation all the way through the 1970s, when voters approved Proposition 13, which significantly decreased the amount of revenue collected from property taxes and prevented local governments from passing their own local measures to raise revenues without having at least a two-thirds supermajority vote. Perhaps Students Matter could file a lawsuit against Proposition 13 instead?
It concerns me that the judge has allowed this lawsuit to continue after the plaintiffs presented their case, because it suggests that the underlying theory of 'harm one, harm all' may be one that Judge Treu agrees with. If he does, a decision affirming that theory could upend years of employment and education law not only in California, but across the nation.
That outcome would please the self-anointed education-reforming billionaires, who view teachers' unions as the last remaining barrier to a full corporate takeover of public education. If they're able to break teachers, they figure they own the whole "market."
With these billionaires and privatizers, however, hypocrisy isn't a bug; it's a feature. The economic collapse of 2008 forced billions and billions of dollars in cuts to California's education system—cuts that Democrats worked on at least partially restoring by passing a ballot measure called Proposition 30, which provided for a temporary increase in both sales taxes and income tax rates on the wealthy in order to keep our public education system solvent. And yet, some of these same billionaires who are promoting the Vergara lawsuit gave millions of dollars to the effort to oppose Proposition 30 and pass Proposition 32, which would have forbade unions from making political contributions in California. And not only that, they gave those donations through a series of shell entities that were specifically created to provide anonymity, but have since been unmasked.
The Vergara lawsuit has nothing to do with a good education for the disadvantaged, and has everything to do with destroying the power of unions. And if it succeeds, it could set a very dangerous precedent across the nation.