Opinion

Vergara: An attack on teachers, schools, students

A California school sign alerting motorists to the presence of youngsters. (Photo: Eddie J. Rodriquez)

Corporate education reform hucksters, school privatization advocates, and anti-labor forces are claiming victory for a judge’s misguided decision that will hurt students and our schools.

From the beginning, the Vergara v. State of California lawsuit has highlighted the wrong problems, proposed the wrong solutions, and followed the wrong process. This deeply flawed lawsuit was not about helping students, but yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on California public schools and students.   The flawed ruling in Vergara v. California strikes down statutes protecting teachers from arbitrary firings, providing transparency in layoff decisions, and supporting due process rights.  It will be appealed because there is nothing unconstitutional about these laws that decades of educators, particularly female educators, fought for to put an end to discriminatory and retaliatory behaviors by school administrators. The plaintiffs clearly failed to show harm to any student. In fact, their case is already unraveling as a key witness, Dr. David Berliner, says the judge misinterpreted or misrepresented his testimony guesstimating one to three percent of teachers were ineffective – a number pulled out of the air that the judge then used in writing his decision.

Even, the plaintiffs’ star witness, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, was forced to concede that he had changed lax LAUSD personnel practices under the current laws, that dismissals had increased tenfold and that probationary evaluations were now taken seriously

The evidence during trial was overwhelming. Award-winning superintendents, principals, teachers, and school board members, as well as nationally-renowned policy experts all testified that these laws work well in well-run school districts all over California, and showed that striking them down would only make poorly-run districts worse.  Strong administrators said the current probationary period is certainly long enough and that any principal who has a teacher on site for that long without knowing if they are benefiting students is not doing his or her job.

Superintendents valued the current layoff system as a fair, efficient, and educationally-sound way for school districts facing budget cuts or declining enrollment to downsize with a minimum of rancor or litigation. They said switching to a layoff system based on student test scores, as plaintiffs advocated, would destroy teamwork and morale, and turn layoffs into an expensive and lengthy bureaucratic nightmare.

The plaintiffs’ testimony, in contrast, showed the real challenges in districts to be staggering turnover rates for superintendents, principals, and teachers; poor working conditions; and sloppy personnel practices. One veteran Oakland teacher testified that in a thirty year career she had only been evaluated twice. Rather than hurting Oakland students, in fact it was the challenged statutes that brought at least some stability to an often chaotic school system, and allow dedicated Oakland teachers to stand up for students  and try to improve poor learning conditions without being fired.

Many of the targeted teachers were actually well respected with good past evaluations. One was the 2013 Pasadena Unified Teacher of the Year and another held National Board Certification.

Even, the plaintiffs’ star witness, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, was forced to concede that he had changed lax LAUSD personnel practices under the current laws, that dismissals had increased tenfold and that probationary evaluations were now taken seriously.

Many of the teachers recruited to testify for the plaintiffs were trained advocates for Teach for America, who signed up to teach for only two years; are  no longer in the profession; or are working for online, privately-run, for-profit charter schools.

Four of the nine student plaintiffs did not testify. For those who did, evidence revealed that many of the targeted teachers were actually well respected with good past evaluations. One was the 2013 Pasadena Unified Teacher of the Year and another held National Board Certification. And that’s the danger of trying to manufacture evidence to fit the accusations. No evidence tied the challenged laws to a single so-called ineffective teacher.

The multimillionaire who brought this case, David Welch, along with the high powered Chevron/Exxon- Valdez defense firm Giibson, Dunn & Crutcher, has claimed no antipathy towards educators. Whether that is actually the case, Welch — someone with no education policy experience or expertise — finds himself aligned with groups and individuals who have blamed teachers and their unions for all that is wrong with public education, and have used this ruling as the latest attack on thousands of dedicated educators. To add insult to injury, one group even bought full-page newspaper ads encouraging more lawsuits. But more lawsuits are not the answer to challenges facing our students and schools. They are not the answer for thoughtful and meaningful change and they do not address major factors like child poverty and mental health. Authentic school reform happens when all stakeholders – parents, teachers, principals and community members – work together to do what’s best for students in their neighborhood schools.

The Court of Appeals will review and debate the evidence in this case. Vergara was the wrong approach and an example of how when moneyed interests try to bypass the democratic process and impose their narrow, uninformed view on our local schools, millions of California students and educators lose. We all deserve better.

Ed’s Note: Maggie Ellis has been teaching special education and elementary education for 20 years. She is also president of the Elk Grove Education Association.


  • Dancquill

    Tenure assures that poorly performing problematic teachers don’t get fired, but transferred to minority and poorer districts that cannot fight the teacher’s unions. This article doesn’t seem to recognize the problem that the judge quickly identified.

    • ItsChippp

      That’s not how “tenure” and seniority work – you can’t get transferred across districts. As for the judge, he clearly saw what he wanted to see. Ellis does a great job in this op-ed showing that it’s the struggling districts that can’t handle evaluation and dismissal proceedings, and that not one student testified to any educational harm that could be attributed to edcode. Treu’s ruling is quite vague about why he consistently finds anecdotal evidence from one side is persuasive and from the other side it doesn’t seem to mean much. As for the evidence coming from experts, Treu believes the plaintiffs economists but not the defense’s economist (Rothstein). As for the actual experts and researchers in the field of, um, education – they almost all testified for the defense and the judge’s ruling says NOTHING about why he doesn’t consider their testimony persuasive.

  • Monica Brown

    Maggie- great job. I agree with what you wrote. Until society deals with the issue of poverty students and teachers will have problems. Remember, teachers like postal workers go into neighborhoods that many Californians have neglected.

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