Last week, in the case of Vergara v. California, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu overturned five California Education Code statutes around firing protections, tenure and seniority for public school teachers. As expected, the education community is abuzz over the decision because if sustained on appeal, it may indeed be the biggest change in California public education in the last four decades, or perhaps ever. There are thousands lining up both lauding and chiding the judge’s ruling.
No doubt there is much nervousness about this ruling, but I do believe that regardless of the final judicial outcome of this case, we have a historic opportunity to reimagine and recreate a system built long ago which hardly could be argued is well adapted for a 21st century learning paradigm. I do not buy into the arguments that this case is about “reformers” versus “traditionalists” or that it’s about charter schools, competition or privatization. This is about an opportunity for all of our public schools to bring true professionalism to the profession of teaching. If we can create a new compact on how we hire, evaluate and even fire teachers, I believe it will not only be better for our students, but better for our teachers as well.
So, my plea to all sides on this issue is to view it as an opportunity to discuss how we elevate the profession of teaching and examine the obligations on all sides to accomplish that. We need more money in the system to better pay teachers as professionals, but we also need modern work rules, pay schemes and evaluation processes to better support both teachers and students. Most local school board members and administrators with whom I have spoken recognize that we can’t treat teachers exactly like we treat employees in the private sector — there are certain obligations required and protections needed as public employees. It’s reasonable for teachers to have due process in employment decisions (much as other government employees do), but clearly this process shouldn’t be so onerous in terms of time or money as to create a disincentive for a district to make the right decision. Most understand that using test scores to evaluate teachers’ performance is so reductive and narrow as to be inherently meaningless, but that does not mean that teachers shouldn’t have frequent, rich evaluations from qualified evaluators (including other teachers). And such evaluations should inform both the support that we give our teachers as well as the employment decisions that we make.
Although I am a staunch defender of public education (and so many of our hard-working teachers, administrators and other staff who do amazing work every day), I can also realize we have inherited a system that no longer applies to our current era. Twenty-first-century education is based upon a permanent change in the context of teaching and learning catalyzed by a flattening world with unprecedented accesses to information and resources. If we were to start over and design a public school system from scratch, we would certainly have a set of rules, regulations and responsibilities appropriate for this new context. As such, I also implore the state Legislature to take this opportunity to look at other areas of California Education Code which run counter to serving interests of our students and schools. We should restructure Ed Code to reflect policies that:
• Allow school districts to create a nimble, professional, 21st-century workforce;
• Enable the adoption of smart technology solutions (as opposed to antiquated textbook requirements);
• Support modern facility requirements;
• Reexamine grade structures (including the clear evidence to include universal preschool within our public school system);
• Enact other policies that expand the role and scope of public schools (in terms of time and resources) to provide “community” services to mitigate the effects of poverty and allow our public school system to become the “great equalizer” that it is now only in theory; and
• Notwithstanding the recent step forward with the new state funding system (the Local Control Funding Formula), further shore up the financial system to support all of these above changes.
I recognize it’s difficult to change something that has just been accepted as common practice for decades. Naturally, many may be anxious of potential changes or suspicious of motives, but to paraphrase FDR, it is only the fear we need to fear. Public school advocates can both recognize that so many of our schools are doing amazing things with the resources and structure they have inherited, but also admit that we must open everything up to potential change to meet the modern requirements of the institution. I hope that last week’s ruling doesn’t pit well-meaning advocates against each other, but rather starts a conversation in earnest.
Seth Rosenblatt is a member of the of the San Carlos Elementary School District Board of Trustees. He is also the past president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on numerous committees and tasks forces related to public education in California.