Editor’s note: Readers should consider two recent developments related to the Vergara case referenced by the author. On May 24, the former students who originally challenged teacher tenure and LIFO laws in Vergara v. California appealed the case to the California Supreme Court. California lawmakers also recently introduced legislation that would change the way California educators are hired, fired and earn tenure.
I am proud to be studying for my doctorate in educational leadership at the University of Southern California. I am fortunate to have been able to navigate the public education system, through college and graduate school. Too
few Latinos finish college compared to African-Americans and Whites. Although Latinos earned 140,000 bachelor’s degrees (the most ever), this figure pales in comparison to almost 1.2 million awarded to White students and 165,000 for African-American students. Reflecting on what inspired my educational and social development, I realize that some excellent public school teachers shaped my perspective on what was possible. But there also were very poorly trained teachers who simply did not have the skills to teach many students in my schools. Some teachers simply did not care to make the effort. They seemed focused on the community barriers—the students who didn’t speak English well, high unemployment, families living in poverty and lacking health insurance, and high concentrations of parents with less than a high school education.
A Victory for Whom?
So, when I first
read the Vergara ruling by the Los Angeles Superior Court I was proud and hopeful. A group of young students, many of them Latina, had come forward as leaders to question the legitimacy of the teacher tenure system in California and challenge its constitutionality under equal protection laws. I was proud to see this leadership from Latino students, who had suffered for generations at the hands of too many public schools, and now wanted to address this well-known but long-ignored problem. The first decision was promising. The Superior Court in Los Angeles declared that five sections of the state’s education code were unconstitutional and should be voided. It found that the student plaintiffs had made a convincing case that the placement of ineffective teachers in predominantly Latino and Black schools was a violation of their equal protection. Unfortunately, my hope and pride proved premature. Vergara was overturned by the California Court of Appeal because the plaintiffs could not prove the state laws violated equal protection. The court’s decision acknowledged the tenure system is problematic. The court wrote:
In sum, the evidence presented at trial highlighted likely drawbacks to the current tenure, dismissal, and layoff statutes...it also revealed deplorable staffing decisions being made by some local administrators that have a deleterious impact on poor and minority students in California’s public schools.
This new decision is not about doing right by students, especially those Latino and Black students whose parents and grandparents faced many institutional injustices that resulted in high dropout rates, discrimination, separate schools and poorly trained teachers in low-income communities for decades. When the decision was announced, the California Teachers Association claimed victory. They clearly saw this as a political victory because they will work to stop any meaningful legislation that challenges the failing educational foundation.
A Bill That Can Change That
On the heels of Vergara, Democratic Assembly member Susan Bonilla
introduced a bill, in collaboration with Teach Plus and Students Matter, that "would allow teachers to achieve tenure after three years of strong performance, with the possibility of earning tenure after a fourth year of stellar work." The bill, opposed by the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association, is expected to be heard by the Senate education committee next month. When asked about the bill from
Morning Education, Bonilla had this to say:
What the Vergara case did is put the issue on my radar. We don't have to wait for our hand to be forced by a judge...To wait is to lose another year in a child's life.
I couldn't agree more.
What Is Right Is Not Always Popular
We in the Latino community have many challenges facing us today, but the one that holds us far back from realizing our potential and contributing the most we can to society is the lack of educational quality and equity. We must hold ourselves and those we have been electing accountable for ignoring and defending a public school system that has badly served many of us. This is not an indictment of all teachers, administrators and school board members, but the truth is that too many of these individuals want to maintain an antiquated system that has not worked well for decades. As an elementary school student, I remember a quote a teacher had in our classroom. I stared at the quote every morning and I did not understand its meaning. As an adult I now know the quote was actually two combined quotes—one from Albert Einstein and the other from an unknown author. The quote was, “What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right, stand up for what you believe even if it means standing alone.” I hope teachers, parents, politicians and students continue to stand for a high-quality education because when we do what is right, we won’t stand alone.
Brenda Lopez is currently earning her doctorate at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. She earned her B.A. from Mount Saint Mary’s University, in Los Angeles, and her M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the second eldest of six siblings whose parents both emigrated from Mexico. She is the mother of an 18-month-old future leader.