Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Powerful factions go to war over direction of California schools

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The powerful political forces that have been skirmishing for years over the direction of California’s public schools appear to be headed for a multi-front political and legal war next year.

It pits the education establishment – led and mostly financed by the California Teachers Association – against a loose coalition of civil rights activists and business-backed school reform groups.

It’s a complicated conflict, but in its simplest form:

The state Board of Education has released its revised plan for implementing Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to spend more money on poor and “English-learner” students, and one battle will escalate.

The establishment wants “flexibility,” but its rivals say that could dissipate the money into salary increases and other spending that would dilute its effect on the targeted kids. The latter dumped on draft regulations as too loose, but whether revised rules quiet critics is uncertain.

Meanwhile, both factions are threatening to take their issues into dueling ballot measures next year.

StudentsFirst, a national reform group, may back a newly filed initiative that would require that teacher layoffs be based on performance and student test scores, rather than seniority and tenure.

That would draw a nuclear response from the CTA and other unions, and they may push a measure to hamstring charter schools, which some reformers tout as an alternative to poor-performing public schools.

Still another front is a lawsuit filed against the state by another reformer group, Students Matter, founded and largely financed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch.

The lawsuit challenges the state to comply with a provision in the state constitution declaring that students have a right to “equality of education,” attacking tenure and other state laws affecting teachers. The CTA and other unions are bitterly opposed, but this month, they lost one skirmish when a Los Angeles judge ruled that the suit will go to trial.

Welch’s group has a high-powered legal team including Theodore Olson, the lead attorney in overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, to battle with attorneys for the state and the unions.

As the war rages to an uncertain conclusion, meanwhile, Brown and Democratic legislators appear to be caught in the middle, sometimes siding with the establishment and other times with reformers.