Dan Walters

California’s perpetual war over schools flares on several fronts

Student Julia Macias, a plaintiff and Los Angeles Unified School District middle school student, comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles, on June 10, 2014. Others from left, parents, Joe Macias, with wife, Evelyn, and their daughter Lucy, Russlyn Ali, former assistant secretary of U.S. Education Department Office for Civil Rights, and Students Matter founder David Welch.
Student Julia Macias, a plaintiff and Los Angeles Unified School District middle school student, comments on the Vergara v. California lawsuit verdict in Los Angeles, on June 10, 2014. Others from left, parents, Joe Macias, with wife, Evelyn, and their daughter Lucy, Russlyn Ali, former assistant secretary of U.S. Education Department Office for Civil Rights, and Students Matter founder David Welch. Associated Press file

California’s perpetual political war over the direction of its immense public education system flared up on several fronts this week without either side striking a decisive blow.

In Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court refused, as expected, to reopen a California lawsuit challenging mandatory dues that teachers and other school employees must pay to unions.

The suit was widely expected to prevail before conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died, leaving the court with a 4-4 tie on the union dues case, as well as many other major issues.

In Sacramento, the California Teachers Association and education reform groups formed a rare alliance, albeit for different reasons, to successfully oppose a mild overhaul of teacher tenure rules.

The CTA and its allies said the bill, Assembly Bill 934, would go too far and would undermine teacher rights, while EdVoice, Students Matter and other reform groups said it didn’t go far enough.

Students Matter had convinced a Superior Court judge that teacher tenure and layoff rules deprive poor students of equal educations, but an appellate court overturned his ruling. The case, Vergara v. California, had sparked legislative efforts to reform the rules, but when the decision was overturned, the atmosphere changed.

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, offered a watered-down reform in AB 934, centered on extending the probationary period for new teachers from two to three years, but it drew just two votes in the Senate Education Committee.

The same committee did, however, approve Assembly Bill 2548, over the CTA’s objections. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, had strong support from the school reform and civil rights advocates for her bill, which would set parameters for a new “accountability” system being written by the state Board of Education.

The system is supposed to merge the standards of a new federal school law with the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula’s emphasis on closing the “achievement gap” separating poor and English-learner students from their more privileged classmates.

Reformers have criticized the board’s preliminary drafts as being too fuzzy and not giving parents clear measures of how their children’s schools are performing.

A CTA representative told the committee that Weber’s bill is “premature,” because the school board is still working on the accountability system, but she countered that the Legislature should intervene now, before the system is locked into place later this year.

The passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act complicates the process because it calls for several specific measures of achievement, while the plan being drafted by the school board’s staff and consultants has shied away from specifics, especially academic tests, in favor of “multiple measures.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has favored allowing the board, headed by his top education adviser, Michael Kirst, to handle the issue and may veto Weber’s bill if it reaches him.

Underlying the entire issue is whether schools, individual teachers – or anyone – will be accountable if the gap persists.

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