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Education Is the Great Equalizer

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I have spent nearly three decades of my career in America's public schools as a teacher, principal and district administrator. During that time, I have seen the best and worst that our schools have to offer. I have witnessed dedicated teachers and inspiring school leaders who have brought out the best in their students, and I have experienced despairing instances of chaos and dysfunction.

Through it all and even when faced with clear instances of failure, I have not lost my core belief that in American society education is the great equalizer. When we get our schools right, when we empower teachers and principals and give them freedom and flexibility to drive real change in students' lives, then our schools can and do fulfill their fundamental promise to be gateways to opportunity.

That is why I am closely following a lawsuit currently making its way through the courts in California. Vergara v. California has been filed on behalf of nine public school students, and it is not a case that tinkers around the edges of education reform. It is ambitious and seeks to do nothing less than overturn the set of laws that govern the hiring, firing and seniority of all public school teachers in California.

In putting the state's hiring and firing system on trial, the Vergara plaintiffs claim that this system is unconstitutional. Every student in California has the right to an education. The California Constitution is quite clear on this. But the state's system of hiring and firing teachers contributes to an environment where this right is violated on countless occasions.

Because this system makes it so time-consuming and costly to dismiss ineffective teachers, they end up staying put and doing an educational disservice to class after class of kids. Administrators are forced to knowingly place grossly ineffective teachers in front of students every day of the school year.

Even more discouraging from the standpoint of education's basic promise of equality and opportunity, research has clearly shown that these ineffective teachers wind up concentrated in low-income and minority schools. These are exactly the students who most need the benefits of a quality education, and because of this unfair system, they are exactly the students most likely to be subjected to teachers who are grossly underperforming.

A victory for the Vergara plaintiffs would put an end to this intolerable situation. But it would do so much more than that. It would put real change on the agenda.

From my decades in education, I know that the status quo is powerful. The temptation to say "no" is strong. Opportunities to be truly bold and open up new paths to progress are rare. That's why a victory by the Vergara plaintiffs would be so important.

A Vergara victory would present education stakeholders across California with a historic opportunity. Vergara would wipe the slate clean, and teachers, administrators and parents could start fresh. They could design a system of hiring, firing and seniority that has the needs of students at its center and promotes the rights of all students to a good school with great teachers.

That would be a great victory for California. But it would also be a victory for all of us who refuse to give up, who refuse to give up the hope and the belief that our schools can be better and can be made to fulfill their potential and truly deliver the opportunity for success and achievement for all of our kids.