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Published on June 23rd, 2014


Vergara vs. California: Our generation’s Brown vs. Board of Education

The case of Vergara v. California is being compared to the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and with good reason. At their cores, both decisions deal with the same issue. Despite all the platitudes and excuses rationalizing the practices that led to each court case, at the end of the day the practical effect of both situations has been systematically denying school children their opportunity to an equal education.

In the famous Brown v. Board case 60 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the rationale behind the “separate but equal” doctrine was unworkable, and in practical terms violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

The Brown vs. Board decision is a prime example of the high court’s best work, and an enduring reminder of the value of the judicial branch of government. So often, it’s the courts that strip away the mumbo jumbo and lofty rhetoric that surrounds the legislative process and gets down to the practical, everyday impact of laws after they are passed.

And that’s exactly what came of the Vergara decision this month. Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that there was “compelling evidence” that California laws regulating how public school teachers are hired, fired, and assigned to classrooms denies poor children (especially those of color) their constitutional right to an equal education. Indeed, the judge said the evidence “shocks the conscience.”

Contrary to what some may believe, no one is accusing the teachers union of being racist. What’s evident to Judge Treu, and many others, is that the cumulative impact of California’s tenure laws unconstitutionally binds the hands of school administrators from providing an equal and quality access to education for every student.

It is easy to see how this has happened. The California Teachers Association (CTA) is the biggest spender among all lobbying groups in California, and enjoys tremendous influence among California’s Democrats. The CTA alone has spent more money in California politics than Chevron, AT&T, Philip Morris and Western States Petroleum Association combined. Furthermore, the Democratic Party has dominated California’s Legislature for the past several decades.

As a Republican lawmaker who has sat on education committees for years, formerly Vice Chair of the Senate Education Committee, I can attest from personal experience, the frustration of trying to pass even the most modest of school reform bills that fail to garner the stamp of approval from the CTA.

For example, a recent, bi-partisan trend in California education circles is to focus on what’s called Linked Learning, i.e. preparing students for technically-oriented careers by matching the classroom academic focus with real-world demands. For such classes, I offered legislation that would give preference to retaining teachers who have actual experience in such technical fields, as opposed to our current system, which rewards classroom assignments based on years on the job instead of expertise and qualification. While it’s obvious that such a reform would benefit students and offer them greater preparation in pursuit of their own careers, my bill was killed at its first committee hearing.

For the unions, seniority and job security is a higher priority than the quality of a child’s education.

After decades of wielding heavy political influence, the simple truth is that California’s teachers’ union has successfully and incrementally crafted a system that works exceedingly well for teachers, but it’s a system that ultimately operates at the expense of students. Unfortunately, California schools grant career tenure to teachers after a matter of months on the job, assigning classrooms and school preferences to those teachers based on their years on the job instead of their qualifications on the subject. Because of this, it is practically impossible to fire teachers who fail to perform.

And that is what the courts have ruled is cheating children of color from their constitutionally guaranteed equal education.

I’m aware that the Vergara case will be appealed. It will likely be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It could be years before we get a final resolution in favor of the kids. But we can’t wait for that. Literally millions of California school children are being hurt by the current system. Getting stuck in a classroom with a teacher who doesn’t belong there sets kids back, sometimes in ways they may never recover from. We can’t wait for a few years while the appeals run out. Judge Treu prescribed legislative action to address this issue. We have a legal and a moral obligation to start fixing this problem now.

California’s children deserve a public school system that works for them.


About the Author: Senator Bob Huff serves as the California Senate Republican Leader and represents the 29th Senate District covering portions of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino Counties. Follow Senator Huff on Twitter at @bobhuff99.

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