Ben Boychuk

Courts stymie school reform

Students students unlock a box during class at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks, Calif., in February as French teacher Nicole Naditz uses a new teaching method under the Common Core standards.
Students students unlock a box during class at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks, Calif., in February as French teacher Nicole Naditz uses a new teaching method under the Common Core standards.

California’s school reformers put their hope in the courts blowing up the status quo. Instead, the courts have blown up their hopes and the status quo remains serenely unmoved.

Well … nuts.

The California Supreme Court in a 4-3 ruling this week decided it wouldn’t review Vergara v. California, a high-profile lawsuit that sought to void the state’s teacher tenure and retention statutes. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge in 2014 had ruled that “last in, first out” and other hiring rules violated the state and U.S. Constitutions, but a state appeals court panel in April overruled him.

In June, an eight-member U.S. Supreme Court handed the California Teachers Association a default victory in Friedrichs v. CTA, which took aim at public-sector unions’ ability to compel nonmembers to pay collective bargaining fees.

Both cases were intended to loosen the teacher unions’ stranglehold on education policy. The CTA, which my friends at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal named “the worst union in America” a few years back, remains the most powerful lobbying group in the Golden State. There is little danger of either distinction changing anytime soon.

Coincidentally, the state Department of Education this week released the results of the second year of standardized testing under the new and ever-controversial Common Core state standards.

Statewide, elementary school kids and 11th-graders showed marginal improvement in reading and math. In math, 37 percent of students scored proficient or better; in English, it was 48 percent. Nothing to cheer, really.

How are the court decisions and the Common Core scores related? A personal anecdote might help shed some light on the answer.

My son started high school this month at a respectable – and respected – public high school in Inland Southern California. His back-to-school night was Monday. The principal, a red-faced avuncular fellow in his late 50s, touted the school’s various accomplishments. Two-thirds of students achieved a grade-point average of 3.0 or better last year. That’s a B. Nearly half had a GPA of 3.5 or better, an A-minus.

Say, that’s pretty good. How is it possible? Statistical analysis has never been my forte, but the distribution of A’s and B’s seem to be in Lake Wobegon territory, where “all the children are above average.”

I soon found out. Every single teacher at the school has a liberal (ahem) makeup policy. Forgot to turn in an assignment? No problem, turn it in before the next test. Bombed the test? No problem, retake it after school or on Saturday.

“I will do everything in my power to ensure your child will not fail,” one teacher said. “If a student gets a D or an F in my class, it takes an extraordinary lack of effort.”

In other words, failure is practically not an option. As I told my son, you’d have to be a moron. And he’s not a moron. Lazy, yes, and a terrible procrastinator, too, just like his old man. But three weeks in, he ranks 12th in a class of 883.

The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board wondered why some schools posted large gains while others saw sharp drops on their Common Core tests. I don’t have a solid answer, only a cynical conjecture: They haven’t figured out how to game the system, yet. Give them time.

I have no doubt that my son’s instructors are a dedicated group of professionals. They don’t appear to be the grossly incompetent teachers that the Vergara plaintiffs identified.

But the fact is, California’s A and B students today aren’t the same A and B students of 30 or 40 years ago. They don’t read as well or as deeply, and their grasp of mathematics is thin. And we’re talking about students at some of the state’s better public schools.

With the Vergara case over and done, the only possibility for reform is in the political arena – which means reform is all but impossible. But graduates of California’s low-performing schools don’t get a makeup. When will voters care?

Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness, a new journal of conservative opinion. He can be contacted at