Latinos and African-Americans make up a majority of the 6 million students in California’s public schools. Many are good to excellent students.
But a sizable chunk of these students, often those from poor families where English isn’t spoken in the home, struggle in school. Gov. Jerry Brown won approval for a change in the state’s basic education funding formula last year with the argument that California’s future prosperity depends considerably on getting these students the help they need to rise to academic challenges and then go on to productive lives.
Brown’s argument makes sense. And it provides the crucially important context showing why all Californians should care about a Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s landmark ruling Tuesday in the Vergara vs. California lawsuit. Judge Rolf Treu found that state laws giving teachers strong lifetime employment protections after just two years on the job had produced a school system so hostile to minority students that it is comparable to the unequal treatment black students faced before the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education forced schools to integrate.
Treu wrote that the impact of incompetent teachers being “disproportionately ... in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students” was so severe it “shocks the conscience.”
There will be far more legal fighting before Treu’s ruling takes effect. The judge stayed his ruling pending appeal. There are experts without an ideological ax to grind who think that between the power of employment laws and the absence of explicit anti-minority state policies, it is problematic for courts to frame what California is doing as an abrogation of students’ civil rights.
But even if Treu’s ruling is tossed, its powerful language — combined with the runoff for state superintendent of public instruction between incumbent Tom Torlakson, fan of the state status quo, and reformer Marshall Tuck — makes it likely that Californians finally will have the debate we need about how our public education system works.
Because of the wealth and clout of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, the system routinely leads to veteran teachers clustering at whiter schools in more affluent communities. As Treu noted, the least competent teachers tend to cluster at struggling schools in poor neighborhoods. Many of these ineffective teachers don’t even teach the subject in which they were trained; a stunning California Watch investigation found that to be the case with 16 percent of teachers at schools that were mostly low-income and Latino.
The CTA and the CFT will argue that job protections are essential because of capricious school bureaucrats. They will say the major problem with California schools is inadequate funding, not inadequate teachers. They will depict reformers who focus on teacher competence — a group that includes President Barack Obama — as stooges serving a shadowy corporate conspiracy to destroy middle-class jobs. And they will continue their increasingly open habit of suggesting large numbers of students are simply beyond help.
But nothing they say can change the massive evidence presented at the Vergara trial showing the difficulty that districts have in firing bad teachers, and the likelihood that these teachers will end up at schools where students are most in need of help.