How California's Education Politics Brought Me to Tears, Again

You know how Tom Hanks’ character in “A League of Their Own” insists that there’s “no crying in baseball”? For the most part, that’s how I feel about education reform. There’s too much that’s sad or frustrating or overwhelming about this broken system to even get started on crying. Most days, I just put my head down and do the work. This past week was an exception. I was devastated to learn last week that the California bill introduced in response to Vergara v. California has been completely gutted in response to teachers union negotiations. This was the bill that was supposed to improve the teacher personnel policies that the Superior Court found disproportionately disadvantage Black and Latino students. Where the original bill, AB 934, would have required four-tier teacher evaluations, streamlined dismissal processes for ineffective teachers and mandated quality-based layoffs, this new bill does none of that. The new version keeps seniority-based layoffs in place and does nothing to create more sensible dismissal processes for grossly ineffective teachers. Combined, these policies will keep low-performing teachers in classrooms for decades, particularly in schools that serve low-income students of color. I cried in the shower for 15 minutes after reading this new bill. I cried because I’m sick of adults making deals at the expense of kids, I’m sick of the polarized nature of education policy, I’m sick of the teachers union throwing its weight around and, above all, I’m sick and tired of the California legislature.

The First Time I Cried

This past week reminded me of the only other time I have broken my “no crying in education policy” rule. Three years ago, I testified at a Senate Education Committee hearing for a bill that would have created multiple tiers of effectiveness for teacher evaluations. For me, supporting this bill was a no-brainer—it would move teacher evaluations from either “ineffective” or “effective” to four tiers of effectiveness, thereby giving teachers much more specific feedback about their practice. One of the reasons I supported this bill was because I am a former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teacher who got yearly “effective” evaluations that did literally nothing to improve my teaching. And let me tell you, I had a lot that needed improving. There were almost 100 teachers, parents and students who came from across the state and testified in support of the bill. That’s why I was shocked when, after two teachers union representatives testified against the bill, the Committee voted it down. I went home to my Sacramento apartment that night and cried, for all of the students and families and teachers in our state. And the next day I picked myself up and went back to work—first in Sacramento and then in Los Angeles. At one of the first events I attended upon returning to LA, I met Beatriz Vergara, the named plaintiff in Vergara v. California. Seventeen-year-old Beatriz was kind, fun and articulate. She reminded me of my own former students, naturally translating English conversations for their Spanish-speaking parents. Since then, I’ve followed Beatriz’s court case closely, as have many who follow education policy and reform. The case has been marked by fits and starts and has become deeply politicized. Reading this, you may think I’m naïve. You may want to tell me, Of course there are politics in education, just like everything else. And I get it—policy is political. But I can no longer stomach adult politics getting in the way of what’s best for kids, when for so many kids in California, education is the difference between literacy or illiteracy, broken Spanish or fluent English and gang-banging or steady employment.
If you live in California, you can contact members of the Senate Education Committee regarding AB-934. The committee chair is Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and the ranking Republican is Bob Huff (R-Brea). You can find all the committee members and links to their contacts here and your own state representatives here.
Halli Bayer
Halli Bayer is an attorney and former middle school English teacher. Since she left the classroom, she has been working in public education law, policy and funding. Halli lives in Los Angeles, California.

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