Declaring war on teachers’ rights won’t improve children’s access to a sound education

Gary RavaniJanuary 22, 2014Gary RavaniLast year a group calling itself Students Matter filed a lawsuit, Vergara v. the State of California. The lawsuit  challenges a number of labor protections for California’s teachers, including due process rights for dismissals and seniority rights during layoffs.
The suit, which goes to trial next week in state Superior Court, and its backers’ publicity strategy fit firmly within the unfortunate recent tradition of wealthy anti-union ideologues masquerading as civil rights crusaders and education reformers.
A representative of the high-priced corporate law firm pressing Vergara recently wrote an article in EdSource Today attempting to place the suit in the footsteps of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, Brown v. Board of Education and California’s Serrano v. Priest school funding decision.
Let’s examine the real history and evaluate the claims based on fact. Do students and their learning really matter to Students Matter?
Recall the image of Martin Luther King Jr. standing before the multitudes during the March on Washington delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. Behind King stand leading activists from the civil rights community, the faith community and unions. Many today forget the March was as much about how labor and economic justice matters as it was about civil rights.
Now re-imagine that scene with King speaking, but this time with the corporate lawyers and megamillionaires backing this lawsuit standing behind him. Having trouble with that? Most people would.
Dr. King was murdered in Memphis while supporting the labor rights of sanitation workers. To propose there is something analogous between Dr. King’s sympathies and the anti-labor Vergara suit boggles the mind. Labor rights mattered to Dr. King.
The Vergara lawsuit asserts that laws protecting more senior teachers in times of layoff cause the schools to keep “grossly ineffective teachers in classrooms while pushing highly effective, but less senior teachers out.” Yet, one backer of Vergara, the Education Trust West, found in a 2005 study, “While characteristics like experience, certification, and education are not perfectly correlated with actual effectiveness they are certainly related.” If effective teachers matter, then it follows that protecting more senior (i.e., more experienced) teachers also matters.
The article cites purported research in the attempt to define “grossly ineffective teachers.” The technique used is the debunked “value-added methodology.” Reputable education experts, including the National Research Council (NRC), found that no research supports value-added methodology as a reliable way to evaluate teacher effectiveness. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), California’s testing vendor and accountability manager, has posted a study that also “raises serious questions” about the methodology.
So, if reliably measuring whether teachers are “grossly ineffective” matters, why are the Vergara proponents using the grossly unreliable value-added methodology to support their arguments?
Vergara proponents also cite Brown v. Board of Education, which found that segregated educational facilities are never equal. The UCLA Civil Rights Project finds California’s current school segregation situation “extreme.” If school segregation matters, why isn’t Students Matter pursuing that directly?
The article cites the Serrano v. Priest lawsuit, relating to equity in school funding. California’s per-pupil funding is right around 49th in the nation, meaning compared to other states, most students in California’s schools are not receiving “equitable” funding. If equity matters, why isn’t Students Matter pursuing that directly?
The litigators for Vergara miss a fundamental truth about what matters in the classroom: You do not enhance children’s access to a sound education by declaring war on their teachers’ rights.
Clearly, a group of wealthy, self-appointed education reformers is using a high-priced corporate law firm to hide behind a number of child “plaintiffs” to carry out an agenda of undermining the public schools. Less clear is if what really matters to students really matters to Students Matter.

Gary Ravani taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers and is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council.
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