THE BLOG
03/21/2014 06:09 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2014

A Guilty Plea in the California Teacher Tenure Case

If it please the Los Angeles County Superior Court, I would like to testify in the case of Vergara v. California: mea culpa.

I am guilty of false testimony. Last year, I wrote a blog post in which I compared the NEA to the NRA, arguing that both teachers unions and the gun lobby were entrenched in misguided, reactionary positions. After receiving a swarm of emails from many mentors, I regretted that critique, especially this ill-informed indictment: "Instead of allowing their constituents to wallow in self woe while lending those sentiments a megaphone, these unions should be engaging in a dialogue to reimagine the teaching profession for the 21st century." Now, after reading an NEA report on the future of the teaching profession and the NEA's plan for reform, I am well aware of the fact that the unions are offering solid, if poorly publicized, contributions to the conversation about the careers of their constituency.

But I didn't feel completely compelled to confess to my crime and write this mea culpa piece until I began following the lawsuit that has consumed a California courtroom for nearly two months. In Vergara v. California, a well-financed team of lawyers -- including Proposition 8 slayer Theodore Olson and Walmart advocate Theodore Boutrous -- is representing nine California public school students in their challenge against five state laws, including the statutes that provide for teacher tenure, outline the procedures for dismissing teachers, and establish a "last-in, first-out" policy for layoffs, privileging seniority over effectiveness.

While I don't necessarily disagree with the plaintiffs' position -- these laws are indeed problematic and should be amended - -I vehemently oppose their tactics.

Perhaps David Welch, founder of Students Matter, the non-profit funding the suit, imagines himself to be the benefactor of a modern Brown v. Board of Education, a champion of change and a defender of the disenfranchised. But this isn't 1954 Kansas -- it's 2014 California. The statues in question don't institutionalize racism -- they protect jobs. The suit's targets aren't the violent mechanisms of an unjust system of segregation--they're hardworking teachers trapped in an education system designed to fail. And the interests backing the case don't represent a swelling support for equal rights and an ardent desire to destroy discrimination -- rather, as Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, Mr. Welch's suit reeks of "a classic AstroTurf operation...[It] looks like it grows from grass roots but is artificial -- manufactured by corporations seeking cover for their activities against the public interest."

Does Students Matter really have to mean that teachers don't? Do students really even matter to other conservatives like Paul Ryan, who weave allegorical (read: fictional) tales of children who don't want their free school lunches because they offer "a full stomach -- and an empty soul"?

Okay, so that last jab is a bit unfair -- I have no idea if Mr. Welch would agree with Congressman Ryan's absurd remark. But I do know that there is something troubling about taking a ton of money and using it to target teachers with the testimony of nine children, going for victory in the courtroom instead of in the classroom (though now that I think about it, I wonder if I could go for victory in the lunchroom by constructing a case around nine kids arguing that cutting funding for the federal school lunch program is an act of criminal negligence...). This lawsuit represents an unfortunate trend in which education reform is seen as a zero-sum game between student achievement and teacher tenure, in which students first has become a euphemism for fire teachers.

Thus as much as I hate to admit it, I was wrong. Teachers have millions -- perhaps billions -- of good reasons to be worried about an "AstroTurf" movement that is working against them instead of with them to improve our nation's schools. Of course teachers still need to be willing partners in the changes that need to happen (and alterations the California laws in question in this case are among them), but manufacturing a trial that exploits their students to insult their hard work is no way to bring them to the table.

That's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.