By Alexander Reed Kelly
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
The plates on which the integrity of American public education rests shifted Tuesday when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu sided with a group of plutocrats seeking to undermine the ability of public school teachers in the nation’s second-largest school system to perform their jobs and defend themselves in a political environment increasingly hostile to their purpose—the common education of Americans.
Two local critics—journalist Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times and Cal Poly Pomona history professor emeritus Ralph E. Shaffer—are among those using plain language and historical understanding to highlight the treacherousness of the ruling.
First, some background. The case, Vergara v. California, “filed on behalf of minority and low-income students who claim they’ve been short-changed by the educational process,” Shaffer writes, is part of a collaborative effort by rich people across the country, especially technology industrialists, and politicians from both sides of the political establishment to “reform” public education. The solutions to what they describe as the problem of America’s ailing school system involve transferring administrative and curricula-designing power from public bodies to private interests, often in the form of charter or private schools, in pushing for test-based evaluation of student understanding and teacher efficacy, and in weakening or removing laws that protect teachers from being fired or suffering other antagonistic disciplinary measures. This last issue—teacher tenure—is at the center of Tuesday’s decision.
The coalition of wealthy donors dumping money into education “reform” in the U.S. range from “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, pomegranate juice titan Lynda Resnick, anti-Obama mega-donor A. Jerrold Perenchio and the widow of Steve Jobs,” according to the L.A. Times.
The murky group that financed this suit goes by the name Students Matter and was organized and in large part financed by David Welch, “a resident of one of the leafier enclaves of Silicon Valley,” Hiltzik writes. An electrical engineer by training, Welch spent the last 30 years working in fiber optics and in 2001 opened the optical telecommunications system manufacturer Infinera. He devoted himself to the tenure fight when, as a father with kids in public school, he discovered how difficult it was to get teachers he deemed incompetent fired.
His organization claims laws that grant educators tenure and seek to make layoffs and dismissals difficult harm minority and low-income students by keeping bad teachers in the classroom. (Never mind that a statistic mentioned in the case’s hearing determined that “grossly ineffective teachers” amounted to 1 percent to 3 percent of those employed in the state of California.)
Students Matter organizers’ real goal then, Shaffer writes, was to acquire the legal means “to purge teachers whom they consider a threat to their reactionary view of American education.
“Tenure opponents want the right to sack the science teacher who won’t teach intelligent design, the social studies instructor who has an impartial word for the United Nations, or the health educator who dares express any but the officially sanctioned line on sex,” he continues.
“Tenure was designed to protect those teachers from the wrath of shrill elements in the community who would impose their ideology on the public schools and the kids in them.”
For readers who are unsure such hostile elements exist, Shaffer offers examples from the history of local teacher intimidation. In 1887, San Francisco educator Kate Kennedy was fired by the local school board for associating with the single-tax movement. In 1919 an L.A. City Schools superintendent expressed his intent to fire any teacher who professed support for the legal labor union IWW. And in the mid-1980s, “Sworn statements from several principals and teachers charged two school board members with demanding one month’s pay to guarantee that the board would reappoint the educators for the coming year.”
The assorted deep pockets and politicians behind the suit are bent on ignoring the real causes of trouble in public schools, Hiltzik writes. It is, according to them, “Not the imbalance of financial resources between rich districts and poor,” Hiltzik notes. “Not the social pathologies—poverty, joblessness, racial discrimination, violence—that affect educational attainment in disadvantaged communities.” And “Not California’s rank at the very bottom of all states in its per-pupil expenditures, at $8,342 (in 2011) ... 30% below the national average of $11,864.”
David B. Cohen, a schoolteacher and associate director of Accomplished California Teachers, an education advocacy group associated with Stanford University, contends in Hiltzik’s article: “Students Matter has done nothing that will put a needed book or computer in a school. Not one wifi hotspot. Not one more librarian, nurse, or counselor. Not one more paintbrush or musical instrument. Not one hour of instructional aide support for students or professional development for teachers. They don’t have any apparent interest in the more glaring inadequacies that their considerable wealth and PR savvy could help.”
The group’s efforts will boost the profits of companies like Apple, however. Under the cover of helping students, Los Angeles Unified School District “Supt. John Deasy has presided over an unbelievably ill-conceived and wasteful program of buying Apple iPads at inflated prices,” Hiltzik writes.
He notes that the lawsuit “offers parents who are justly concerned about their children’s futures a remedy of pure snake oil,” that “it will make good teachers harder to recruit and harder to keep” and “ensure that the real causes of California’s educational decline—causes that require money to solve—will go utterly unaddressed.”
Shaffer adds: “If Judge Treu’s decision is upheld, the years ahead will produce comparable examples. Without tenure, faculties will be at the mercy of administrators and school boards who will hire and fire at will, as they did before adoption of this state’s teacher tenure law.”
Both critics are calling Tuesday’s ruling exactly what it is: one part of a long, money-greased attempt to transfer democratic controls over education into the hands of anti-social rich people, this time by taking away the economic security of teachers who oppose them. For informing California and the rest of the country, Michael Hiltzik and Ralph E. Shaffer are our Truthdiggers of the Week.