Education is the playground for billionaire philanthropy, regardless of ideology. Moral conservative billionaires want it privatized so churches can educate children at state expense. Liberal billionaires want it privatized so they can profit from it, as do the more business-minded conservatives like Rupert Murdoch, for example.
David Welch is a billionaire with a mission, which is to pretend that it was so difficult to fire "bad teachers" that he needed to fund a lawsuit led by a high-powered legal team, "for the children."
That lawsuit - Vergara vs. California-- is now underway in downtown Los Angeles, with lead attorneys Theodore Boustros and Theodore Olsen of anti-Proposition 8 litigation fame.
The goal? To destroy current negotiated protections for teachers, like tenure and fair hearings for misconduct, on the basis that such protections for teachers harm the civil rights of disadvantaged children in the school system. The entire theory is so utterly cynical you'd think it was ripped right from the pages of the Koch foundation, and maybe it was. But it's playing out in a city with a lot of education issues that have nothing to do with teacher tenure or unions.
In 1971, the California Supreme Court ruled in Serrano v. Priest that the state was violating the equal protection clause by giving some school districts more money than others. Now, the plaintiffs say teacher dismissal laws have a similar net effect: that bad teachers, more often than not, land in bad schools, which more often than not are in lower-class communities.
Does the California constitution guarantee a student's right to learn, or to be taught by an effective teacher? These are questions the court must sort through. Each side will present a string of experts, school bureaucrats, teachers and perhaps even students.
The trial is expected to last at least two more weeks, and its outcome will ultimately be decided by the white-haired Judge Rolf M. Treu, who watches over the proceedings with a skeptical, Rip Torn-esque grimace.
The fact that Treu chose to hear the case at all means that he's at least open to the plaintiff's argument that the state, and the big teachers unions, are violating the constitutitonal rights of children.
Welch is funding this incredibly expensive lawsuit through an organization by the name of Students Matter, which is a subsidiary of -- wait for it -- StudentsFirst.
The heart of this lawsuit really centers around whether or not the state has adequately funded its schools. Since Proposition 13 passed, it has not, and as funding decreased and teachers' resources were taken from them, the quality of California public schools has declined. Teacher tenure has nothing to do with this. It seems laughable to me that the same billionaires who fork over millions to Teach for America to intentionally plant ill-trained future hedge fund managers in public schools for a year or two are somehow arguing that teacher tenure is the reason underprivileged children's education suffers.
Where is their concern for the poverty of these children, for their health, for their neighborhoods? Where are they worried about the impact school closures have on their educations?
No, once again it's all about teachers, because this is not a lawsuit about tenure. It's a lawsuit about breaking teachers' unions.
Nowhere in the complaint is there any hint of the real causes behind the crisis of public education. In the past few years, California’s K-12 annual budget has been cut by about $18 billion. Thousands of schoolteachers have been laid off in California, and hundreds of thousands nation-wide. Throughout the country, teachers face classroom sizes of 50 or more students per teacher, with inadequate textbooks, supplies, and proper cooling and heating systems.
As a report on California education from the conservative RAND corporation states, in the early 1970s “California’s public schools were considered to be among the nation’s best.” While the complaint makes much of California’s low educational ranking compared to other states, it does not mention that Proposition 13, passed in 1978, dramatically reduced funding to California schools, leading to this downward trajectory.
If Welch succeeds with his complaint, you will see what it means to have teacher quality decline. If you've ever been the parent of a child in public school, you've likely seen what can happen when Johnny's mommy gets a burr under her saddle about Johnny not being top in his class, or getting in trouble for not doing his homework, or when Johnny doesn't outperform the standardized test expectations. It's never Johnny's fault, but it's always the teacher's. Tenure is designed to protect teachers from that particular corner of hell so they can actually do the thing they're paid to do: teach.
If Welch succeeds, teachers will just be commodities, just like the Teach for America group where they spend a couple of years working with the poors for the promise of a cushy hedge fund job afterwards. Not trained, not hoping to be trained, and not particularly effective.
Watch this space.