Equal Opportunity Under Law

By Bruce Reed

RCEd Commentary

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that began the desegregation of American schools, students of color and their families still find themselves in court, fighting for equal educational opportunity. 

They just won another big victory.

Yesterday, Superior Court Judge Rolf Michael Treu ruled in favor of nine California students who united to demand equal access to effective teachers, challenging laws and policies that disproportionately place ineffective teachers in classrooms attended by students of color and low-income students. Vergara v. California pointed to the cumbersome dismissal process for blatantly ineffective, even criminal, teachers and “last in, first out” layoff rules that force great teachers from the classroom just because of their hiring date.  One witness was a California Teacher of the Year laid off not long after winning that honor.

It shouldn’t have taken a judge and a lawsuit to make California keep the promise of opportunity for all students.  But like Brown, Judge Treu’s decision has the power to force defenders of the status quo to confront the reality they have been willing to ignore for too long:  Far too many of our schools still let too many young people down, doing the greatest injustice to students who stand the most to gain from better educational opportunities.

This case focused on counterproductive policies in California designed to protect ineffective teachers at the expense of effective ones.  Yet in many ways, the effectiveness of the entire system of urban public education, here and across the country, was on trial as well.  The Vergara decision doesn’t just nullify a set of wrong-headed policies.  It strikes down a much deeper wrong – that 60 years after Brown, the basic right of every student to make the most of his or her God-given potential still doesn’t come first.

As a state and as a nation, we’ve made some progress.  More low-income students are graduating from high school, more students of color are going on to college, and we’ve reduced achievement gaps somewhat.  But our schools aren’t getting better fast enough, the gap isn’t closing fast enough, and far too many young people are still trapped in low-performing schools where they’ll never catch up in time to be ready for life after high school.

The divide in student achievement is persistent and inexcusable.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 85 percent of white students nationwide graduate from high school on time, compared to only 76 percent of Latino and 68 percent of black students.  By the age of 25, if you come from a high-income family, you have a one in two shot of having a four-year college degree. If you come from a low-income family, you have a one in ten chance.

The future of our society depends on eliminating those gaps. With the Vergara decision, Judge Treu has done his part.  Now leaders and citizens have to do theirs:

 

  • Beyond getting ineffective teachers out of the classroom, we need to do more to attract and train good teachers in the first place.  Schools of education do just the opposite.  We should require prospective teachers to master the subjects they’ll teach and get intensive training on the job instead of in an education school lecture hall. And once teachers are in the classroom, we need to provide them the respect and reward that they have earned for their critically important work.

     

     

  • Low-income families deserve more good schools to choose from. More than 2.5 million students attend public charter schools, and the number is growing more than 10 percent a year.  Hundreds of thousands of students are stuck on waitlists.  We need to make room for more of the high-quality charter schools parents are lining up for – and shut down bad charters that don’t measure up. We should also work to improve and support traditional public schools.

     

     

  • Elected officials should show the same courage as Judge Treu by stepping up to take responsibility for supporting the good schools that students deserve and voters have a right to expect. Until governors and mayors stake their electoral futures on improving the public schools—by retaining effective teachers and closing ineffective education schools, lifting caps on strong charters and closing weak ones, and giving schools more autonomy in return for better results—opportunity for all will continue to be drowned out by excuses from all.

 

The Vergara decision establishes a principle as incontrovertible as it is historic – that every student has a right not only to an effective teacher, but to an effective public education.  We’ve kept America’s students waiting long enough.

 

Bruce Reed is president of The Broad Foundation, a national philanthropy that works to improve urban public schools and supported the Vergara v. California lawsuit. He was formerly chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and domestic policy advisor to President Bill Clinton.

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