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Vergara v. California: Teachers’ rights under attack
Teachers are currently being attacked on many fronts. Our professionalism is questioned and a bipartisan consensus in congress blames teacher unions for the deficiencies in public education, while the schools we work in are underfunded and under of privatization. Powerful interests including the Walton family of Walmart infamy, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Los Angeles based billionaire Eli Broad have demonized public schools and pushed for more charters while dismissing the demands of teachers – the people that actually work in public schools.
Powerful corporate interests and the politicians that represent them are intent on claiming the mantle of civil rights while those of us who do the actual work of teaching children everyday are portrayed as greedy and only concerned with self-interest. Why are teachers and their unions under attack? Because the unions are the only organizations left standing up for public schools and resisting the privatization movement. The privatizers refer to themselves as “reformers” and posture as if they are standing up for working class students of color. This is a façade in order to hide their true aim, to privatize public education and to erode one of the last bastions of public sector unionism.
The so-called education reformers (progressive educators call them the education “deformers”) have closed schools in Philadelphia and Chicago, and have viciously attacked teacher rights in states such as North Carolina and elsewhere. Currently there is a struggle in California over permanent status, (often called “teacher tenure” in the media), which is in fact a rightwing attack on a teacher’s right to due process if targeted for dismissal.
Vergara v. California
The battle is currently in the courts in the form of a case entitled Vergara v. California. In this case an organization ironically called Students Matter (headed by former disgraced Superintendent of Washington D.C. Schools Michelle Rhee) has brought Vergara to trial, claiming that the inability of school districts to fire “ineffective teachers” violates the rights of students of color by inhibiting their learning. Those of us who work in schools find this laughable.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the district only pays for a nurse to be present on a school campus once week while a significant majority of schools lack a school librarian. It is not uncommon to find classrooms with 40 or more students while services for special education students are being slashed. Some campuses that serve special education students are in danger of being closed. Music and art programs are hard to find in LA schools.
What about the civil rights of students to have a nurse, a librarian, a reasonable class size, and art programs? Many campuses are in need of structural repairs, but instead LAUSD used $1 billion in bond money to spend on iPads for students, which will wear out, break or become obsolete long before the bond is paid off, while basic needs remain unmet. But the public is told to ignore all these problems, and instead focus on the supposed scourge of permanency or “teacher tenure.”
What is permanency? It is simply the right for a teacher to have due process if they are in danger of being dismissed. Teacher receive permanent status in California after two years of service, but contrary to corporate propaganda are not guaranteed a job the rest of their working lives. They still may be fired if an administrator deems it necessary. In fact the number of teachers dismissed has increased 12-fold since current Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy took the helm. (Deasy incidentally owns stock in Apple, which may explain his enthusiasm for iPads.)
Permanent status was instituted in order to protect teachers from arbitrary, or politically motivated firings, including by racist or sexist administrators who might target a teacher for spurious reasons. Permanency grants teachers some measure of academic freedom while enabling them to speak out and stand up for their students’ interests.
The Vergara case is an attempt to turn teachers into at-will employees who can be fired at any time for any reason without explanation. Permanent status enables a teacher to hear the accusations against them and to address the allegations. It is a fundamental right that every worker should have, not just teachers. Capitalists are attacking “tenure” as an ultra-cynical means to attack labor, since unions get in the way of their ever-expanding super profits.
First hand experience in schools
From my experience as a union representative at my school, I have seen how veteran teachers are targeted and then often replaced by relatively low-wage long-term substitute teachers (who can be dismissed at any time) or Teach for America recruits. TFA members are given a paltry five weeks training before being thrown into a classroom and are encouraged to teach only two years before joining the immense education bureaucracy.
Organizations such as TFA display the utter contempt and disregard the education deformers have for the teaching profession. Many of us spent two years after college to earn a teaching credential, and view educating youth as a lifelong passion. The idea that the corporate sponsors of TFA (one of the largest being the Walton Family Foundation) believe that a young person five weeks out of college can do the job of a fully credentialed teacher is insulting to teachers and our profession.
The plaintiffs of the Vergara case aim to attack permanency as a way to move professional teachers out while replacing them with cheaper employees. It shows that the capitalist class does not care about students of color or good teaching. They cynically claim to be proponents of civil rights in the same manner George W. Bush claimed to be for Iraqi human rights before bombing and invading Iraq.
The capitalist press has joined in on the attack with baseless claims. The LA Times recently proclaimed that African American and Latino students are more likely to have highly ineffective teachers than white students. The following false headline was based on a study by Thomas J Kane, “White students get better teachers in L.A., researcher testifies.” Yet as Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, and many others have pointed out, poverty is the main factor when it comes to student achievement. The higher the degree of poverty children experience, the worse they perform on standardized tests, and of course the Black and Latino communities are among the most impoverished in the U.S. It is true that many inner city schools are staffed with young teachers, but that is because conditions in many schools in working class areas where people of color live are so decrepit that veteran teachers leave.
Even so Kane (an employee of the capitalist ed reform Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) has admitted in his testimony in the Vergara case that taking away due process rights for teachers would reduce the quality of people who enter the profession. Kane also admitted that the study has not yet been peer-reviewed, the gold standard for research to be published. That a study which would be viewed with suspicion by experts in the field was given such prominence in the corporate media shows the depths to which the capitalist class will stoop to in order to attack teacher rights. Inadequate and substandard conditions are a real problem in schools today, not “ineffective teachers.”
The importance of mass action
It is time for teachers and their unions to break with their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party. President Obama’s arguably the most anti-teacher administration in memory. Election victories, if achieved, are only short term and inevitably lead to disappointment. Only mass action, protests, and other disruptive tactics can produce victories for public education.
If district bureaucrats did not show up for work, no one would notice or care. But if the teachers don’t show up, the schools don’t run. We need to use this power to effectively fight back against those who want to attack public education. If we fought alongside other school workers such as custodians, office clerks, and cafeteria personnel we would be a very strong force that the capitalist class would fear. The Vergara case will have national implications for teacher and student rights throughout the country. Teachers’ unions and their allies around the country must be ready to strike and organize against these attacks!
The writer is a public school teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, and serves as a union representative for his building.
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FEBRUARY 23, 2014