Viewpoints: Teacher quality is a civil rights issue

Great movements often ignite from modest actions. In 1955, Rosa Parks – a 42-year-old African American seamstress – refused to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Her humble act of defiance helped catalyze the civil rights movement and defeat systemic racial discrimination.

In 2012, nine California public school students, including some poor and minority kids, bravely stood up to challenge an education system that was robbing them of their opportunity for a better life. Reformers have unsuccessfully battled the education establishment for years in the Legislature, but these nine kids took a different approach: They sued the state for violating their rights to a quality and equal education as guaranteed by the California Constitution. Last month, they won.

In Vergara v. California, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu issued a sweeping opinion striking down teacher tenure and seniority laws that serve to protect special interests at the expense of students. Recognizing the import of the case, he evoked the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education – the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case that rejected the principle of “separate but equal” in public schools. In his 16-page ruling, Treu unequivocally struck down all five challenged laws as unconstitutional. It wasn’t even close. In his words: “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

Teacher quality is the most important factor in determining whether kids get a good education. The vast majority of California teachers are competent and dedicated professionals, but as in every field, there are a few bad apples that should be doing something else. Even the most disadvantaged students can thrive with effective teachers. Conversely, studies show that a few years with ineffective teachers can set students so far back academically that they never recover.

Judge Treu considered testimony explaining that dismissing a bad teacher could take anywhere from “two to almost ten years and cost $50,000 to $450,000 or more.” Presented with such a lengthy and costly dismissal process, it is no wonder that bad teachers are tolerated. Even worse, these bad teachers are concentrated in low-performing schools that serve minority children from economically distressed areas. These vulnerable students need the best teachers. Instead, they often end up with the worst.

My personal conviction for the Vergara ruling stems from my belief that America is the land of opportunity where any kid, from any neighborhood, can achieve his or her dreams. Unlike many other countries, where you start in America does not determine where you end up. But that promise of opportunity is predicated on receiving a good education.

As the son of immigrants, I am so grateful for all of the opportunities that were only made possible in America. I received a good education, and every door of this great country has been open to me. Sadly, that is not true for millions of California kids today.

There are issues where reasonable minds can disagree; this is not one of them. Education is a civil rights issue that cuts across politics and race, and unites those who seek to provide a brighter future for all Californians.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris should follow the precedent they set when they declined to appeal the Proposition 8 decision because they thought the law was wrong, and accept Judge Treu’s ruling without appeal. They should exercise that same discretion in defending the civil rights of poor kids and use Vergara as the catalyst to finally launch the transformative education reforms that our schools need.

I also call on my fellow Republicans to speak forcefully to defend what is rightfully owed to every child under the state Constitution – equality in educational opportunity. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln. We must lead the fight to defend constitutional rights – not only when our own rights are violated, but especially when the rights of others are violated.

By some measures, California ranks 46th in education and first in poverty. The link between the two could not be clearer. Vergara provides the opportunity to initiate the bold changes that are necessary to improve education and reduce poverty. We owe it to the nine students who bravely stood up to the most powerful special interest in California. We owe it to all our children. Let us seize this opportunity to put the American Dream within reach of all Californians.