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School & District Management Opinion

Even in Winning, Vergara Is Still a Loser

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 16, 2014 5 min read
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Remember the analogy test you had to take to get into college. Well, here’s one:

Vergara is to education reform as pancake makeup is to beauty.

Makeup covers up the pockmarks and makes the surface look better. But it doesn’t do anything about the body’s systemic problems that caused the blemishes.

The same is true with the much discussed Vergara decision and education. Almost everyone associated with the case understood that there are problems with the existing tenure and due process systems. Even defense witnesses hedged their supportive language, which made it easy for Judge Rolf Treu to quote them in his decision to declare five sections of California law unconstitutional.

But his decision offers only surface remedies: moving the time to tenure by as little as a year, eliminating an extra step in the due process requirements for dismissal, and tempering seniority with some consideration of teacher quality. I heard some of the student testimony in Judge Treu’s courtroom and read other parts of it, and I came away utterly convinced that changing these laws won’t give students a substantially better education. The decision does not begin to deal with the underlying systemic problems that prevent each classroom from having a very well educated, highly trained, motivated, and effective teacher.

What’s worse, the plaintiffs and defendants in the case are now engaged in a race to the bottom, pledging to fight over fairly narrow cosmetics rather than solving systemic problems.

There is nothing in Vergara that gets California off the floor of education funding. On a cost of living adjusted basis, California is 49th in the country in support for public education. The state badly needs to change its tax system and to attack its gross inadequacy to provide Beatrix Vergara and the millions of students she represents with the education they need.

It badly needs to make tax revenue less dependent on swings in investment markets. School districts can’t budget wisely for the future because they can’t depend on the stability of state revenue. And given the instability of funds, the instinct of employee unions is to grab as many dollars as they can before they go away.

Vergara says nothing about the state’s huge pay equity issues. Teachers of rich kids get paid more than those who teach poor kids. In 2009, the average teacher salary was $90,000 in Portola Valley, where the median household income is nearly $224,000 year. In Oakland, where the median household income is $50,500, the average teacher salary was about $54,000.

California has the capacity to change this system. It does not have a plan or the political will. The corporate reformers who manufactured Vergara ducked the question of taxation. Students Matter, the organization that bankrolled the suit, calls itself a movement, meaning that its intent is to develop political will around an issue. The shame of being 49th should be an issue.

There is nothing in Vergara that improves the pool of incoming teachers. High performing countries from around the world make it hard to become a teacher but easier to be one. Singapore and Finland, countries that lead in international achievement results, place “strong emphasis on the academic achievement of candidates, their communication skills, and their motivation for teaching.” Only about one in eight applicants gets into teacher training in Singapore, one in ten in Finland.

California could do this, but it doesn’t. A recent report from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing shows a pattern of unselective intake for teacher credentialing programs in the state. Only 4% of new teachers come from the University of California system, and a small handful get credentials from top-tier private schools. 39% of the state’s new teachers last year came from the California State University system, which runs some good teacher training programs, but none of them screens candidates with the rigor of Singapore or Finland. 55% of new teachers came from private colleges, many of which use teacher training as a cash cow to support the rest of their institutions. (Let the letters of outraged response flow.)

But even with this low level of selectivity, California is in danger of not training as many teachers as it needs. Enrollments in teacher education programs have always been sensitive to employment demand, and since the recession started in 2008 they have dropped by almost 21%.

There is nothing in Vergara that improves the quality of teacher preparation. In his opinion, Judge Treu found that California’s two-years-to-tenure system was unconstitutional partly because continuing employment decisions needed to be made before the end of the state’s two-year induction program. He failed to notice that the induction program had become a hollow, underfunded shell.

California used to dedicate about $4,000 for each new teacher to support the state’s exemplary Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Program (BTSA). It provided mentoring for new teachers, improved their effectiveness, and dramatically reduced turnover. But since 2009 school districts have been allowed to redirect that money. More than half have cut their support; 10% eliminated funding entirely.

There is nothing in Vergara that promotes continuing professional growth. California used to fund 10 days of professional development time for teachers each year. These have disappeared, and support programs have taken deep cuts.

There is nothing in Vergara that prevents teacher turnover. Turnover is a problem in the schools that poor, minority, and English language learner students attend. The plaintiffs are right about this. But most of the churning in the teacher ranks occurs because teachers quit, not because they are laid off. The last five, recession-driven, years are an anomaly. About 30 percent of all teachers quit the occupation within the first five years; more than half of those in challenging assignments leave.

There is a plan to fix this. Greatness by Design was issued two years ago. It was the work of a task force created by state superintendent Tom Torlakson and chaired by Long Beach superintendent Chris Steinhauser and Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond. It’s unusually thorough, and thoughtful legislation based on its recommendations would go a long way toward getting Beatrix Vergara the education she deserves. The lawsuit brought in her name won’t.

(Photo: Stuart Miles from FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.