Workers Vanguard No. 1051
5 September 2014
Public Education Under Nationwide Assault
California Ruling Pits Minorities Against Teachers Unions
On June 10, the State Superior Court in Los Angeles ruled in Vergara v. State of California that laws codifying teacher seniority and job protections discriminate against poor and minority students, who the court claimed are more likely to be taught by incompetent teachers. Hypocritically blaming teachers for the failings of the grossly underfunded, segregated and blatantly unequal public school system, the Vergara suit was a ploy to pit black people and Latinos against the unions. This blow to the teachers unions is the latest in a years-long offensive carried out by both Democrats and Republicans. Since the ruling, two similar lawsuits have been filed in New York, with others in the works in Connecticut, New Jersey, Minnesota and Tennessee. In California, Democratic governor Jerry Brown has appealed the ruling; teachers unions have announced their intention to appeal as well.
The fight to defend union jobs and working conditions for teachers goes hand in hand with the fight for quality, integrated education. But instead of mobilizing on this basis, which would win wide support from working people and the black masses, the California teachers union tops have played into the anti-union smear campaign, joining with Governor Brown’s efforts to “streamline” the firing process. The California Teachers Association even praised Brown for signing AB 215, a state law expediting the process of firing teachers accused of “egregious misconduct.” The allegiance of the labor officialdom to the capitalist Democratic Party is a recipe for defeat.
The woeful state of public education is a searing indictment of racist American capitalism, which is incapable of meeting the basic needs of the exploited and oppressed. It will take socialist revolution to sweep away this rotten system and usher in a society that provides decent jobs, quality education and other necessities for everyone.
The following presentation, given by comrade Reuben Samuels at a Bay Area Spartacist League meeting in late June, has been edited for publication.
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I joined the Spartacist League amidst the 1968 New York City teachers strike. As Mayor John Lindsay slashed the school budget, he pitted the barrios, ghettos and black teachers against the mainly white and disproportionately Jewish teachers union through a scam called “community control.” Devised by the Ford Foundation, the Lindsay administration and the federal Office of Economic Opportunity—which ran Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty”—the “community control” scam broke up the administration of New York public schools into at least 30 independent, community-based school boards. Each board would set its own budget, pitting community against community in a relentless competition over shrinking resources. And each would have the right to hire and fire, thereby breaking the collective bargaining power of the citywide United Federation of Teachers under Albert Shanker.
The teachers strike was provoked when the newly minted school administrator of the mostly black Ocean Hill-Brownsville district summarily fired 13 teachers. One teacher was fired for allegedly losing control over his class; it was claimed students were even throwing chairs at one another. Upon review, however, it was demonstrated that the chairs were bolted to the floor.
An unholy alliance of civil rights and black nationalist leaders, the “old” left and the New Left, and the liberal establishment united to break the strike, crossing picket lines and setting up so-called “liberation schools.” As you can surmise from “Beware Liberal Union-Busters!”, our ’68 strike leaflet [reprinted in WV No. 956, 9 April 2010], we were uniquely unpopular for defending the strike while denouncing the Shanker leadership. The union leaders’ narrow-minded “business union” approach and callous indifference to the plight of minority youth undermined the strike, isolated the union and further fueled racial polarization. No wonder a character in Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) quips that civilization was destroyed when “a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.”
Separate and Unequal
Today, American public education is more segregated than any time since the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Project coined the term “apartheid schools” to describe schools with 1 percent or less white student enrollment. In Chicago one-half of schools meet this criterion. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, roughly 30 percent of Latinos attend schools in which whites make up 1 percent or less of enrollment.
Prior to large-scale deindustrialization in this country, back when American capitalism required more of an educated workforce, California ranked among the top ten states in per-student expenditure. Student academic performance was reputed to be excellent. In 1978, the state’s Proposition 13 ballot initiative put a cap on the property taxes used to fund public schools. Prop 13 represented a racist backlash by homeowners against having their taxes fund social programs particularly benefiting poor people and minorities. Today, California ranks 39th in per-pupil spending. Adjusted for cost of living, California ranks 46th. In math and English skills, the state’s fourth- and eighth-graders rank between 42nd and 47th.
Between 2008 and 2013, the K-12 student-per-teacher ratio in the “Golden State” increased from 21-to-1 to 25-to-1, the highest in the nation—the national average being 15-to-1. An important measure of public education resources is the student-to-librarian ratio. In California in 2011-12, that ratio was 7,374 students for every librarian, also the highest in the nation. The Oakland Unified School District only funds two full-time and two part-time librarians for 37,000 students. As a consequence, one-third of Oakland’s school libraries have been shut down.
In California, 80 percent of students graduate from high school. But just 63 percent of Oakland Unified students graduate, including only 51 percent of black males. With concentrations of black men literally locked up and out of the labor force, unemployment levels among black youth resemble those of young people in Spain, Italy and Greece. A 2009 Northeastern University study found that across the country on any given day, nearly one out of four black male dropouts were in prison or jail, as opposed to one out of 14 non-black males.
Twenty-three percent of California students are English learners, also the highest rate in the nation. Los Angeles Unified not only has more English learners than any other school district—about one-third of its 600,000 students—but more than 80 percent of its students live in poverty. Twenty percent will have dropped out by senior year.
Anti-Union Assault on Public Education
The background to the court decision in Vergara v. California is the increasing privatization of public education along with systemic racial segregation. Quality schools prepare the exceptional and the wealthy for Stanford while urban holding pens prepare poor black and Latino students for Pelican Bay state prison. Nobody is talking about privatizing schools in Palo Alto, although Silicon Valley is the cockpit of the privateers.
Privatization is a way for the capitalist government to slash the cost of educating poor and minority youth. But for individual capitalists, there is money to be made. K-12 education in America is a $500 billion-plus market. Including higher ed and career training, the education sector represents 9 percent of the U.S. GDP, more than either energy or technology.
Why is Silicon Valley the cockpit of education privatization? Testing, text books, teaching apps and software are growth industries. Replace teachers with iPads and apps, and you can test, direct and monitor what the little devils are doing every minute of the day. The Silicon Valley-based Rocketship chain of charter schools says it saves half a million dollars a year by using fewer teachers, replacing them with non-certified instructors at $15 per hour. These instructors monitor up to 130 kids at a time in cubicles in the schools’ computer labs. L.A. Unified has no money to fix crumbling schools or to hire enough teachers at a decent salary, but it found money to give every student an iPad.
Teachers unions are the biggest obstacle to privatization. So the Bush and Obama administrations teamed up with philanthropists like the Gates Foundation, Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and Walmart’s Walton Family Foundation to bust or eviscerate teachers unions under the watchword of “reform.” Rocketship shows one way to replace teachers with Walmart-style associates, Teach for America another. That program recruits students from elite universities for a brief passage through ghetto schools.
What does school “reform” look like on the ground? In 2004, Oakland launched a “small schools” campaign backed, in part, by a $9.5 million Gates Foundation grant. The city closed a dozen large schools and opened 48 small ones in their place. Fremont High, one of Oakland’s worst-performing schools, with 1,862 students, was broken into five high schools. Result: an exponential increase in administrative bureaucracy and costs, no noticeable change in academic performance. In 2009, after spending $2 billion on its “small schools” experiment, with poor and minority students as guinea pigs, Gates admitted failure.
In 2013, then-superintendent Tony Smith reconsolidated Oakland’s three worst high schools, including Fremont, turning them into—you guessed it—“community schools.” This meant firing all the teachers, who could only be selectively hired back as “teachers on special assignment” with eleven-month contracts that had to be renewed annually. One teacher “reconsolidated” out of a job was Oakland Unified veteran Michael Jackson. He had put in 27 years at Fremont, founding its Media Academy in 1986, a bright spot in those fenced-in grounds of concentrated desolation. One Media Academy student told the lively campus newspaper Green and Gold (12 June 2013) that even before she got to Fremont “my sisters and her friends were talking about Jackson and how he bailed a student out of jail so he could walk the stage.” Jackson was close to retirement anyway, but now he was forced out, gone.
The L.A. schools also experimented with a variation of Smith’s “community schools.” In 2008, L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat and former teachers union organizer, spearheaded the “Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.” Under this initiative, eleven poorly resourced public schools were placed in a “turnaround” program. All school staff were fired and told to reapply for their jobs. Typical was Markham Middle School in Watts, which replaced its veteran teachers with “Teach for America” freshmen. The following year, the “Terminator” governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut education funding by some $10 billion, resulting in the loss of more than 2,000 L.A. teachers. Markham saw a 72 percent reduction in teaching staff. The following school year, these vacancies were covered by a rotating pool of substitutes.
In response, the Southern California ACLU recruited students from three of L.A.’s poorest middle schools, including Markham, as plaintiffs for a 2010 lawsuit, Reed v. State of California. In the name of protecting students’ rights to equal and adequate public education, the suit targeted teacher seniority, blaming the policy of “last hired, first fired” for the disproportionate impact of the 2009 layoffs on the poorest schools. As if shredding seniority would attract better teachers to under-resourced ghetto and barrio schools! Rather than fighting layoffs or fighting for more resources for poor schools and their teachers, the ACLU attacked the teachers.
The Vergara Cabal
The Vergara suit expanded Reed and took it statewide. Aimed at five provisions of the California Education Code governing teacher job protection and seniority, Vergara argued that by making the firing of “grossly ineffective teachers” difficult, these laws made the concentration of bad teachers at poor and minority schools inevitable, thereby violating the constitutional right of students attending those schools to equal access to quality education.
Let’s be clear. California teachers do not have tenure as you might understand it—lifetime employment. During a two-year probation period, teachers can be fired without cause; after two years, a cause must be given and is subject to review by an arbiter, just as in any union job and many non-union jobs. This provides certified teachers with partial protection against arbitrary firings for such things as skin pigment, sexual orientation, political views or criticizing the administration.
Vergara was initiated in 2010 by Silicon Valley fiber optics entrepreneur David Welch and his nonprofit Students Matter. The defendants were Governor Brown and his state superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson. The two state teachers unions, the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, joined the suit as codefendants so they would have standing.
Welch, who has no background in education or education policy, modeled his Students Matter on Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst. During her brief tenure as Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, Rhee trashed union rights for teachers. The high-pressure, teach-to-the-test regime she imposed generated a correspondingly massive cheating scandal before she was run out of town. Students Matter supporters include not only Rhee’s StudentsFirst but also the California Charter Schools Association, Oakland’s Tony Smith and Los Angeles Unified superintendent John Deasy. Deasy, a former deputy director at the Gates Foundation, was both plaintiff and defendant in the Vergara suit.
In L.A., Deasy implemented the so-called Value-Added Model (VAM) for assessing teachers based on test scores. VAM comes straight out of corporate American culture à la Silicon Valley. There employees are assessed on how much “value” each contributes to the bottom line. Every year the bottom 5 percent are cut, stimulating performance through cutthroat competition. Nothing succeeds like fear itself. During the Vergara trial, Deasy denied any connection between student performance and poverty. “I believe the statistics correlate,” he said, “but I don’t believe in causality.”
In an article on VAM titled “The Harm Behind the Hype,” Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond explained: “Test scores largely reflect whom a teacher teaches, not how well they teach. In particular, teachers show lower gains when they have large numbers of new English-learners and students with disabilities than when they teach other students. This is true even when statistical methods are used to ‘control’ for student characteristics” (Education Weekly, 5 March 2012). Bottom line: The most precise determinant of student success is the student’s zip code.
The Vergara suit originally recruited three white and five Latino students as plaintiffs. (A black student was only added later.) The three white plaintiffs and one Latina did not testify or make any submissions at all. Education writer Alan Singer reported in the Huffington Post (24 August): “The father of one of the white students is president of a coffee and tea company with between $10 and $25 million in annual revenue and over fifty employees. The father of the second white student is vice-president of Wilshire Associates, an investment management company. The parents of the third white student are wealthy real estate developers specializing in the affluent Encino market.” Such were the (silent) spokesmen for the dispossessed and downtrodden.
Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara, after whom the suit is named, both attended a “pilot school” in L.A. that is free to fire teachers at the end of the school year for any reason. Plaintiffs Monterroza and Martinez both attended charter schools that do not recognize teacher seniority or job protection. One teacher accused by the suit of being very bad was Pasadena’s 2013 teacher of the year, a 2011 Pasadena Educational Foundation grant recipient and a 2008 recipient of the Star of Education Award from the NAACP’s Altadena chapter. Another teacher had never received a negative evaluation in her 28-year career.
The defendants made a number of motions challenging whether the plaintiffs had any legal standing whatsoever, i.e., whether they could demonstrate personal harm from teacher seniority and job protection. The unions complacently thought that the case would be thrown out. Instead, higher courts threw out the challenges. The case went to trial in January. Judge Rolf Treu of the California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles, obscenely citing Brown v. Board of Education, ruled:
“Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students. The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.... There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.”
How did Judge Treu uncover the shocking “number of grossly ineffective teachers?” The ruling declared: “Dr. Berliner, an expert called by State Defendants, testified that 1-3% of teachers in California are grossly ineffective. Given that the evidence showed roughly 275,000 active teachers in this state, the extrapolated number of grossly ineffective teachers ranges from 2,750 to 8,250.” But Berliner told the Los Angeles Daily News (13 June): “I never said that.” He added, “I’m on record as saying I’ve visited hundreds of classrooms and I’ve never seen a ‘grossly ineffective teacher’.” Berliner had testified about flaws in VAM. Asked to estimate the percentage of teachers who might fall into VAM’s low-performance category for four straight years, he guessed it was 1 to 3 percent. The Daily News reported, “He was alarmed, he said, when he read the ruling and saw how his ‘guesstimate’ was used.”
If you hadn’t heard of the Vergara case, despite its importance, don’t blame yourself. The California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers have done nothing to take the case out of the courtroom and into the streets, except a modest protest in L.A. on the day of the decision. Instead, their response to the decision is to appeal to the very courts that denied their earlier motions. In contrast, the union-busters and school-privateers behind Students Matter have not restricted their cause to the courthouse. They went public with a high-powered PR campaign, and are going national.
The two national teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, represent about a quarter of all union members nationally, with 4.6 million members. No wonder this bastion of unionization has been in the crosshairs of Wall Street and the White House. Despite their numbers, teachers alone wield little social power. But as we argued in “Beware Liberal Union Busters!”, teachers can and must be a bridge between the communities they serve, especially the ghettos and barrios, and organized labor in this country.
One last point: The kids locked up in classrooms seven hours a day, nine months a year for 12-13 years, are our future. What happens to them there affects the transmission of culture, science and history to the next generation, or lack thereof.