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Vergara Lawsuit Would Hurt California Students

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Today in Los Angeles attorneys will offer closing arguments in Vergara v. California, a lawsuit funded by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch and others with ties to the school privatization movement under the banner of a front organization called Students Matter. The suit wrongly attacks as unconstitutional California statutes covering teacher employment, including the current two-year probationary period, the due process protections built into teacher dismissal and layoff procedures that value experience over more arbitrary factors.

That the probationary period is even an issue is a little mind-boggling; if a principal can have a teacher on staff for two years and still have no idea if that teacher is effective, he or she probably has no business being a principal. At trial, award-winning superintendents and principals have testified that two years is more than enough time to decide whether to keep a teacher on staff and, in fact, they usually decide in a year or less. And while teachers support some streamlining of the current dismissal process, the current system works well for well-run school districts and protects teachers from arbitrary firing. And in court school administrators have testified the overwhelming majority of teachers threatened with dismissal for good cause simply resign or retire.

School layoffs under current law aren’t terribly complex, although they are certainly always painful, not only for the directly impacted teachers but for students, parents and communities. I should know: As a veteran teacher in the financially troubled Inglewood School District over the past three years I’ve received three preliminary layoff notices and have actually been laid off  twice. (I and many others were eventually hired  back as substitutes with no health benefits, although I  am now currently back on a full contract.) But as disruptive and demoralizing as layoffs have been, the plaintiffs would make them far worse by making “effectiveness” (as defined by our students’ standardized test scores) the main criteria for determining who goes when districts are forced to cut staff.

The problems with this approach are numerous.  It would destroy teamwork and collegiality as teachers facing potential job loss would be forced to compete with each other to make sure their test scores outperform the classroom next door. Mentoring each other–sharing lessons and ideas, or even team teaching–would be extremely risky because assisting another teacher in improving her students’ performance would by definition place your own job at greater risk. What the Vergara plaintiffs are seeking would turn mutual teacher support into a school site version of The Hunger Games.

Another problem with using standardized test scores is that most teachers and most subject areas don’t have them. Although language arts and math are tested annually at some grade levels, most secondary subjects, including foreign languages, P.E., arts and sciences have no standardized test scores. How then is a school district supposed to rely on data that doesn’t even exist when initiating layoffs? And are plaintiffs arguing for even more standardized testing than our students are already saddled with?

Worst of all, devaluing experience and inflating the importance of test scores would hurt the students the Vergara plaintiffs claim to be trying to help. Teachers would be naturally averse to taking assignments with the most challenging students, or in school sites with high poverty, English language learner or transiency rates, because those situations almost always yield the lower test scores.

The current layoff system is painful but fair, and allows school districts to reduce staff quickly and efficiently during budget cuts. There is no stigma attached to being laid off—nor should there be– but that would all change if plaintiffs prevail. Vergara plaintiffs want to use school layoffs for a purpose they were never intended—to bypass the dismissal process completely and turn them into a quick way to fire teachers without having to go through a legitimate evaluation process.

The Vergara lawsuit is the work of wealthy corporate “reformers” with no education policy expertise. If successful, they will hurt the very students they say they are trying to help.  It’s time to stop blaming teachers and instead give us the resources and support needed to help all California students. Teachers want the best for our students; this lawsuit won’t help us achieve it.

(Kelly Iwamoto is a fourth grade teacher at Kelso Elementary School in Inglewood. She is an Inglewood Teachers Association member.)



Photo: LAUSD

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