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The Vergara Ruling: Very Significant, Very Misguided, Very Dangerous
This week's ruling happened in California, but it may have a ripple effect that negatively impacts public education nationwide

This week, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that California statutes governing teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs are unconstitutional because they force students to be assigned to “grossly ineffective teachers.”

This ruling is being hailed as a victory by those who support the “corporate model” of education reform. If it stands, it will ultimately have a chilling effect on the quality of public education in America.

The “Vergara case” was brought to the judge by Students Matter, and funded by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch. That the ruling is being celebrated by the likes of Students First founder Michelle Rhee, founder of Students First, and Eli Broad, whose foundation has groomed Superintendents like L.A. unified Superintendent John Deasy and Philadelphia Superintendent Hite.

Both Welch and Rhee have expressed interest in taking similar lawsuits to every state in the country. If you’re wondering when similar litigation is coming to Pennsylvania, the answer is, it’s already here.

Recall that the School District of Philadelphia and the School Reform Commission have already filed a petition with the PA Supreme Court to allow them carte blanche in imposing working conditions on the members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.  As they did in the Vergara Case, Rhee’s blatantly anti-teacher organization filed an amicus brief in support of their position.

The Vergara case and the SRC’s petition are equally without merit. In Pennsylvania as well as California, there are statutes in the state code that clearly outline the procedures for removing ineffective teachers from the classroom. What proponents of these kinds of lawsuits want is an atmosphere where the principal is judge, jury and executioner when it comes to the careers of classroom teachers.

California Federation of Teachers president Joshua Pechthalt summed up the judge’s ruling perfectly, saying that the “judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric and one of America’s finest corporate law firms that set out to scapegoat teachers for the real problems that exist in public education…”

And that’s what’s so frightening about this decision. It wrongly supports the fallacy that the problems facing public education is the fault of the teachers and the unions that represent them.

AFSCME president Lee Saunders aptly points out that this ruling “unnecessarily pits teachers against students, while ignoring… unfair and unequal funding, damaging segregation and high rates of poverty.”

The most troubling aspect about Vergara is that it gives center stage to the political and ideological battle between educators and corporate “reformers,” rather than putting the focus on the real problem facing urban education—underfunding of schools that has led to a drastic reduction in student services and programs.

Pennsylvania’s education funding woes are well documented. But when it comes to spending on public schools there has been a nationwide trend of disinvestment at the state and local level since 2007.

The Vergara ruling also undermines the role of collective bargaining between school districts and employees. The guiding principal of contract negotiations is that administrators and educators should collaborate on the best way to educate our children. The Vergara decision sends the message that management should be the only voice in the discussion.

While every teacher-district contract may not be perfect, every issue can—and should—be negotiated when both parties share a vision of better schools. I have personally negotiated several contracts with the school district, and each time we have been able to overcome sticky issues and challenges to create a system that works best for our children.

Part of that system is not just firing bad teachers, but identifying those that are struggling and intervening swiftly to provide the support they need. Teachers, not dot-com billionaires, are the ones who are most dedicated to removing ineffective educators from the classroom. That’s why here in Philadelphia, we developed a Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program that is designed to help teachers improve and, if they do not, counsel them out of the profession. 

Philadelphia’s PAR program is considered a national model. Rather than trying to “pink slip” our way to better schools, we should be working to expand on this model and develop other innovations to improve teacher quality.

Legal maneuverings like the SRC’s Supreme Court petition and the Vergara ruling threatens to undo all of the progress we have made toward creating a high-quality system of public education. 

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 3, AFL-CIO. All rights reserved. Photographs and illustrations, as well as text, cannot be used without permission from the PFT.