Just over a year ago, I won re-election to the Los Angeles Unified School District board. It was an unlikely victory in what may have been the most expensive school board race in U. S. history. The wealthiest of self-styled reformers – Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee’s followers – put in over $4-million to try and take over the L.A. Board of Education.
The stakes were high. Los Angeles Unified is by far the largest school district in the nation to be governed by an elected board. Our district has over 900,000 students, over 60,000 employees and an operating budget of over $7 billion. The reformers were clear about their goals. They sought to eviscerate the power of our teacher union by eliminating job protections, seniority rights, and tenure. They sought to link teacher evaluation directly to standardized test scores. And more.
Against this gale force, we were able to build an improbable coalition of families, teachers and classified employees, and community activists. We matched the billionaires’ money with authentic boots on the ground. We talked to people, and people listened. In the many struggles in today’s economy, battles often pit people’s interests against the interests of corporate America. This time the people won.
Or so we thought.
As it turns out, the election isn’t really over. It just shifted venues.
The same privatizers who funded the campaign to buy the school board funded the litigation here in Los Angeles that seeks to achieve through the courts what they could not win at the ballot box. Named for one of the student plaintiffs, Beatriz Vergara, the case heard closing arguments yesterday. If it is successful, the Vergara case will eliminate some teacher tenure protections, limit seniority, and diminish collective bargaining rights.
To be sure, the Vergara case has dramatized serious and significant issues facing our students and their schools. I have spent my career working to narrow the opportunity gap that creates the sub-standard conditions for teaching and learning that so dramatically impact the achievement gap. At both the school where I taught for 17 years and the Board of Education, I have built partnerships that address the education disadvantages that saddle so many black and Latino students struggling against our institutionally racist systems.
But the Vergara plaintiffs’ team was much more interested in the spectacular than the substantive. Their case was presented with compelling optics and atmospherics, and it is part of a strategy that extends well beyond the courtroom. Students Matter, the umbrella organization advancing the case, hired a crackerjack PR team and paid them millions to spread what I call the “Vergara Fiction” across the nation.
The Vergara Fiction is disingenuous. It says that if it were easier to fire teachers and if teachers didn’t have strong tenure and seniority rights, many of the problems facing Beatriz Vergara would disappear. The obstacles built over decades would evaporate with one decision. In this fantasy world of precise causality, if no teachers had tenure, then they would be scared into performing better. If there was no teacher seniority, energetic new teachers would work around the clock for two years before burning out and moving out, being replaced by another young recruit. Make no mistake; the goal of the plaintiffs is to diminish the stature of teaching as a profession.
Addressing instructional quality for all students involves a complex series of changes in policy and practice. Who we recruit to be the next generation of teachers and how they are trained and supported necessitates a transformed relationship between school districts and universities. Improving teacher education is much more important than lengthening the tenure window.
And collaborative teacher evaluation reform like LAUSD’s Frameworks for Teaching and Learning must be implemented with urgency and investment. None of this work is easy. It will take collective sleeve-rolling from our teachers, our union partners and civic Los Angeles. Eliminating seniority would be simpler, but it wouldn’t change a thing for Beatriz Vergara.
Finally, we should all come together to make sure criminals and pedophiles masquerading as teachers never enter a classroom. There are reasonable changes that can be made to statutes that ensure student safety without cutting due process for teachers facing accusations that have nothing to do with student’s rights.
But the plaintiffs’ legal team and their private-sector backers aren’t interested in real solutions. That is not their agenda. The case is just a means to an end. That is why the public relations campaign is so much more about fictional narrative than concrete substance. They have woven together a story that ensures that if they win in court they win, but if they lose they win even more.
Because the next stop for the reform train is back at the ballot box.
The court case is the trailer for the next series of ballot initiatives and school board races. By establishing a fictional direct correlation between Beatriz Vergara’s teachers and every aspect of her aspirations, the plaintiff’s have pitted teacher’s rights against the American Dream itself. And a campaign that is framed as a battle between adult job protections and children’s dreams is a sure fire vote getter. I can see the ad already: “Beatriz Vergara can’t vote yet but you can!”
The damage the Vergara case will inflict will be felt well before the verdict is read or the first post-Vergara campaign is launched. Every teacher that watched the trial or read the coverage felt the attacks personally. The defense team did an admirable job presenting its case, but no one is defending teachers or our life work. The unrefuted narrative of teachers’ standing in the way of the American Dream instead of defending and promoting it, will linger much longer than the verdict.
And there is one more thing.
I know Beatriz Vergara. Not personally. But I know thousands of Beatriz Vergaras. They are my students, my counselees and my neighbors. Rejecting the billionaires and their plaintiffs’ attorneys cannot mean we reject Beatriz and the urgency of her struggle. In fact, we must redouble our efforts to make the complex and difficult changes to our systems that will truly honor her potential and her dreams. We must show Beatriz and her family and all our families that we go so much further when we turn towards each other instead of against each other. We must make her struggle our struggle in our every waking moment. We must forge new pathways to realize the promise of public education for all students. And today, we must have the courage to realize that standing with Beatriz Vergara means standing against the exploitive case that bares her name.
Steve Zimmer is a member of the LA Unified School Board, representing District 4