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How the Vergara Ruling Can Be an Opportunity for Teachers

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As a veteran urban educator and career union member, I care deeply about both my students and building the systems to ensure that all students and teachers have what they need to be successful. In the legal precedent laid out in the controversial Vergara decision relating to teacher tenure in California, I see a potential window of opportunity opened for all of us to rethink our current conceptions of accountability and advocate for something that will serve both students and teachers better.

The state superior court judge's final ruling in the case, issued last week, asserts that under California's constitution, students have a fundamental right to equality of education, including having a reasonably effective teacher. If a law is believed to negatively impact these rights, especially if they disproportionately affect poor or minority students, the burden is on the state to justify that that law serves a “compelling interest.”

The Vergara case focused on the current patchwork of state laws governing dismissal of grossly ineffective teachers and handling dismissals made under budgetary duress (“first in, first out”). The judge determined that these measures have had the effect of unfairly burdening disadvantaged students with weaker teachers and that the state didn't meet the burden of proof to the contrary.

However, nothing in the court's decision says teachers shouldn't have appropriate due process. Of course teachers need reasonable protection from arbitrary or ineffective supervisors, just like kids do. The court only stated that any system must ultimately be accountable to serving the compelling interests of kids.

Progressive teachers' unions have long recognized their ultimate responsibility to their students and the profession. Instead of waiting for this type of litigation to call out legislators who have put overly onerous laws into place, often under reflexively defensive union pressure, many local unions have fully participated in building better systems for students and teachers. Examples abound of teachers' unions in California working constructively with school districts to create better accountability mechanisms. Those include jointly created evaluation systems in San Jose and San Juan that define performance expectations, involve teachers in mentoring struggling peers, and set a reasonable path to dismissal for the small handful of persistently ineffective teachers.

A Precedent for Change

With the Vergara decision now heading into a lengthy appeals process, critics have correctly pointed out that the court ruling by itself does nothing to address the broader “below the surface” issues affecting teaching and learning. The court's decision won't bring more prepared practitioners into the profession, coach more teachers to improve from good to great, ensure they have the supports they need to effectively do their job, or provide them growth and leadership opportunities throughout their careers. It won't train more administrators to be capable instructional leaders, or build systems that surround all students with all the emotional, creative, and intellectual supports they need to have a fair shot at achieving their dreams. This decision doesn't rethink what schools should look like to achieve all this in a sustainable manner, or to ensure our legislature provides enough funding to make this happen.

But it could be a step toward improving many of these things.

This ruling, if upheld, would set a precedent. All state policies concerning the public education of children could potentially be “stress tested” for their ultimate impact on students. And the expectation would be beyond merely delivering the unacceptably bare minimum of a “basic education,” but that systems would work for students in a way that approaches equity across the state.

In a speech at this summer's American Federation of Teachers national convention in Los Angeles, the union's president, Randi Weingarten, said the judge's decision in the California case "presupposes that for kids to win, teachers have to lose. Nothing could be further from the truth."

In fact, the judge's decision doesn't presuppose this at all—only the union has presumed this stance. But Weingarten is right in suggesting that it's ultimately possible for both students and teachers to win. I think Vergara could set the groundwork for this to happen.

Whether it will or not depends on how we act now. And while it’s natural to feel threatened when forced to come to terms with change, critical moments like this can be catalysts for growth.

Educators, advocates, and policymakers (including unions) can use the Vergara decision as an opportunity to step back from costly, piecemeal fights over individual policies and attempts to implement accountability systems one isolated component at a time. Instead, with the potential for legal teeth to back it up, we can now ask: What would it take to make sure every single child had a school that meets their needs?

There’s potential in California for building such a system, what research professor Charles Taylor Kerchner would consider to be California Exceptionalism. The state has not backed down from fully adopting the Common Core State Standards, which not only set a consistently high bar not only for students, but encourage collaboration across schools, districts, and even with higher education. It has wisely prioritized providing time and additional resources for educators to gradually implement these standards, suspending high-stakes testing while not abandoning the creation of an assessment plan to guide instruction and improvement. The state school-finance reform plan (the “Local Control Funding Formula”) gives schools flexibility in budgeting along with increased resources for students most in need, while requiring schools to account for how their spending improves student outcomes. And now Vergara gives hope for focusing on system-level changes that, if done right, would both benefit teachers and be accountable to students.

So let's be accountable to this moment, and use it not to wrestle in the weeds but as a lever to plant a more beautiful garden.

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