Jerry Brown: Fighting Back on Vergara

Back in June Rolf M. Treu of the Los Angeles Superior Court, the judge in an education lawsuit, Vergara v. California, determined that the state’s policies on teacher tenure constituted a civil rights violation against students.

The legal, and factual, validity of this thinking was a little questionable. Many argued that this was really an attempt to undermine labor protections, though even many pundits sympathetic to labor rights admitted that the state’s policy of granting tenure to teachers after only 18 months on the job did seem misguided.

Well last week California Governor Jerry Brown indicated he’s going to bat for the unions. According to a piece in the New York Times:

In a one-page appeal filed late Friday afternoon, Mr. Brown and the state attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, argued that a decision of such scope needed to be made by a higher court, and that the judge in this case had declined a request by the governor and attorney general “to provide a detailed statement of the factual and legal bases for its ruling.”

Granted, Brown is a lawyer and this may just be a way of dragging the case out to appeal to the unions, but he’s bringing up a rather important point.

The judge, in his opinion, said, in effect, that union rules and the 18 month tenure policy “result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students.”

The accuracy of this is debatable. While the judge wrote that “the evidence is compelling… indeed, it shocks the conscience,” the evidence is actually inconclusive.

It’s true that poor children often have teachers who don’t appear good at promoting high student achievement, but it’s not at all clear that teachers are the cause of low achievement. It may be that being poor causes low achievement and teachers, even very good ones, can’t do much to change that in a large-scale sense. As Joshua Pechthalt and Dean Vogel wrote at USA Today: “Do we really believe we can fire our way to academic excellence?”

It’s also not clear (OK, it’s just not true) that this has much to do with unions. The plaintiffs argued that California’s worker protections for teachers caused low achievement, but states with fewer legal protections, particularly in the South, don’t have higher achievement. Indeed, most of them have lower achievement.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer