Treu Calling

Jewish Light Editorial

American Jews have both contributed to and benefitted mightily from public education and collective bargaining. So no matter your opinion about the judge’s decision in Vergara v. California – the recent case striking down teacher tenure and seniority provisions of law in that state as violative of the right to equal education – we encourage you to consider the outcome through the prism of our cultural history.

California has highly substantial protections for teachers and their careers. Less than two years into his or her career, a teacher in the public schools can receive tenure protection, even prior to the end of a mandated induction program that both acclimates and assesses the new hire. Major due process protections for removal can make it highly difficult to remove a tenured but ineffective teacher. And seniority protections are rigid enough that vastly superior teachers lose their positions ahead of those with lengthier careers; this is fact happened to Michelle Apperson, Sacramento’s Teacher of the Year, in 2012.

These teacher protections, according to Judge Rolf M. Treu, who presided over the Vergara case, contribute to a poor education for many of California’s children. “All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,” said Treu. “There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.”

While Treu points to low-income and minority children being unfairly stuck with some of the worst teachers, the plaintiffs come from across different geographic areas and from a variety of backgrounds. Some critics of the lawsuit, however, cite its funding by wealthy Californians who have backed other politically conservative efforts. They therefore question whether the true motivations for the challenge are motivated by student success or anti-union sentiment.

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It’s not that simple. Those who have devoted their careers to education have spoken up in favor of the plaintiffs’ assertions. The superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District testified on their behalf, and United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the result.

The great irony of the current dispute lies in the assertion that union-imposed mandates prevent children from obtaining a decent education. For Jews who came to this country during the waves of late 19th-century and early 20th-century immigration, both public schools, as to education, and unions, as to jobs, served an essential purpose of helping those who otherwise might be left behind. Protections of the workplace ensured safe working conditions and a livable wage with which to support families; public schooling allowed Jewish kids to learn English and, like those of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds, assimilate into the American fabric.

The difficulty in the current controversy is the contention that union protections might not be consonant with optimal learning for children. If the rules related to choosing, evaluating and keeping teachers are inconsistent with best educational practices, then they should be subject to proper review and scrutiny.

Union advocates claim that this suit and its ilk are a red herring, a distraction from other aspects of public education that suffer deficiencies, with insufficient funding and class size among the worst.

They are right – but they are wrong as well; to characterize any criticism of tenure and seniority provisions as a war on unions is unhelpful. One doesn’t fix the major shortcomings in public education, particularly as applied to disadvantaged children, by excluding one area of potential remedy. The entirety of the system needs to be under review, to ensure that all that can be done for kids is being done.

In his 2001 comments opposing a voucher system for publicly funded education, Rabbi Eric Yoffie said, “The public schools were the ladder that we used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life, and how dare we deny it to others.”

While we don’t know how Yoffie feels about the current dispute, we firmly agree with his categorical support for public education’s role in American society. We highly value public school teachers, and also a fair and substantial set of rights and protections that maximize their professional experience. But children come first, and some of the illogical protections in California’s tenure and seniority system may be having an impact on children, particularly disadvantaged ones. If appellate courts agree with Judge Treu that that’s the case, changes for the benefits of the kids, either judicially or legislatively, are desirable and welcome.