Are job protections for teachers to blame for educational underachievement among low-income students of color in California? That’s the provocative question ostensibly at the heart of Vergara vs. California, which seeks to invalidate the tenure, due process and seniority rights of hundreds of thousands of educators.
Astute observers of the nation’s escalating education wars, however, may be asking another question: When did it become permissible to use the welfare of children as a fig leaf for an all-out legal attack on teachers?
Or, as historian and teacher John Thompson wrote recently in Scholastic, “Are corporate reformers unabashedly using the courts as a battleground for battering employees’ rights, as opposed to helping children?”
Sadly, the answer to Thompson’s question appears to be an unequivocal yes. For while the outcome of Vergara will have far-reaching national implications, it is hardly unique in its attempt to scapegoat teachers for sub-par educational performance.
To appreciate the value of a community college education, consider the transformation of Shanell Williams.
By the time she was a teenager, Williams was constantly getting into trouble on the streets of San Francisco’s Fillmore District. Her abuse of drugs and alcohol, along with a difficult family life, would lead her into the juvenile justice system, drug treatment centers and foster homes.
“I was a juvenile delinquent,” she admits.
Today Williams, now 29, hardly resembles that troubled youth. She is a hard-working student at City College of San Francisco, taking urban studies courses and hoping to transfer to Stanford University or the University of California at Berkeley. She has served as president of the student council at CCSF’s Ocean campus and was elected to be the student representative on CCSF’s Board of Trustees.
“Community college has helped give me a pathway to higher education,” she says.
That pathway may soon be closing.
As our country’s economy has limped along from one crisis to another over the past several years, the impact of state and federal austerity measures on communities has exposed our troubling national priorities. A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that despite the Great Recession technically ending in 2009, schools have yet to return to pre-recession spending levels, and in some states the cuts reach up to 20 percent per pupil. These drastic cuts have become the norm as communities in states that have resorted to austerity to put out short-term fires must now cope with the fallout from such measures.
And then the government shut down.
So on top of underfunded schools, we had Head Start agencies on the chopping block,long-term WIC funding up in the air, furloughed workers flooding unemployment offices and the nation on the brink of defaulting on our debt yet again.
For more than 30 years each, Cheryl Smith-Vincent and Cheryl Ortega have shared a passion for teaching public school in Southern California. Smith-Vincent teaches third grade at Miles Avenue Elementary School in Huntington Park; before retiring, Ortega taught kindergarten at Logan Street Elementary School in Echo Park. Both women have been jolted by experiences with a little-known statewide policy that requires traditional public schools to share their facilities with charter schools. Ortega says she has seen charter-school children warned against greeting non-charter students who attend the same campus. Smith-Vincent reports that she and her students were pushed out of their classroom prior to a round of important student tests – just to accommodate a charter school that needed the space.
“It was extremely disruptive,” Smith-Vincent says of the incident.
The practice of housing a traditional public school and a charter school on the same campus is known as “co-location.” Charters are publicly funded yet independently operated,
A friend of mine emailed me last fall incredibly worried about the impact of potential sequestration cuts on schools and students across the country. He was a long-time Washington D.C.-based public education advocate, so I was simultaneously unshaken and unnerved by his concern. Sequestration seemed like a D.C.-based fear, so unlikely to actually happen given the blowback that would surely come from such imprecise cuts. But my friend’s many years of fighting for resources for children’s education meant that I couldn’t really ignore his concerns, and so his words remained a low-level worry until March 1, when I had to concede that he’d been right all along.
Funding for shared needs like education is always at risk and the past few weeks have highlighted just how great that risk is.
For years, Los Angeles has been ground zero in an intense debate about how to improve our nation’s education system. What’s less known is who is shaping that debate. Many of the biggest contributors to the so-called “school choice” movement — code words for privatizing our public education system — are billionaires who don’t live in Southern California, but have gained significant influence in local school politics. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent contribution of $1 million to a political action committee created to influence next week’s LAUSD school board elections is only the most recent example of the billionaire blitzkrieg.
For more than a decade, however, one of the biggest of the billionaire interlopers has been the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, who have poured millions into a privatization-oriented, ideological campaign to make L.A. a laboratory for their ideas about treating schools like for-profit businesses,