THE BLOG
06/18/2014 09:48 am ET | Updated Aug 17, 2014

About Those Vergara Naysayers...

The most interesting thing about Vergara v. California may not be the decision itself but the reactions to it.

Andrew Rotherham over at Eduwonk did a great job of summarizing both positive and negative responses. I've been most interested in the rhetorical dances and desperate logical leaps of those who disagree with the court's decision, and I think it's worth going through a few here.

"This case wasn't about students but about a billionaire with ulterior motives."

The argument is that, because a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist was one of the main funders of StudentsMatter, the lawsuit was merely another arm of the "corporate takeover" of education.

What's strange is that billionaires are usually praised for their philanthropic work, whether it is protecting the environment, promoting marriage equality, or improving the health and welfare of millions of people in Africa. But when it comes to improving education, somehow these people must have evil ulterior motives. Perpetuating this view is both inaccurate and utterly disingenuous. In fact, when you look at StudentsMatter, you'll see that its structure mirrors other successful advocacy/litigation organizations. The problem with StudentsMatter for critics isn't who funded the lawsuit; it's what the lawsuit is targeting.

"Vergara won't improve public education because it doesn't address school funding, poverty, or segregation."

Vergara has stirred a national dialogue on the whether current school personnel policies help students get the best teachers possible. Policy makers, editorial boards, scholars, and even the U.S. Secretary of Education have weighed in on a collective and meaningful conversation about the need for change. Considering these laws have been on the books for years, the national conversation itself is progress.

And when you consider what these conversations are about, it's hard to argue that some good is not going to come from them. The case against quality-blind layoffs is abundantly clear, a fact that's evident in the lack of a strong defense of LIFO in the criticisms of Vergara. Likewise, the case for tenure reform is strengthened by recent research demonstrating meaningful, positive impacts on the makeup of the teacher workforce. And if everyone agrees that ineffective teachers should be dismissed, why does California make it so darn difficult to do so?

"Sure, these policies could be improved, but other reforms are needed more."

A spin-off of the previous argument, this classic pivot acknowledges that California's tenure, dismissal, and layoff statutes are not the best policies for kids, but it still finds fault in the fact that this decision doesn't fix other bad policies or put anything better in place.

This argument is the most fun to me. First, it creates an unrealistic expectation for what a court can do. Courts typically do not put in place better policy; that's not their role. However, it is their role to declare which policies violate constitutional rights. In Vergara, the plaintiffs were not asking the court to write law but to strike down barriers -- in this case, bad laws in California -- that prevent districts and schools from doing the right thing by teachers and students.

Second, saying that Vergara is worthless because the decision doesn't fix poverty, improve school funding, or pay teachers more is a canard. Nobody has suggested that fixing tenure or eliminating LIFO will solve everything, but those policies do need to be changed. Aligning teacher personnel policies with the needs of students is the right and smart thing to do. And besides, you can solve more than one problem at a time. So while policy makers and communities are working to improve the lives and welfare of children outside school, why wouldn't we also work to ensure that all students have great teachers in the classroom?

So have no doubt that what the Vergara opinion has created is the rare opportunity for the California State Legislature to create meaningful, lasting change that will transform California's public education landscape. And the path forward is pretty clear.