RealClearEd Today 03/25/2014: 2 Parties, 1 Political Playbook
Good morning. It's Tuesday March 25th. At RealClearEducation this morning we have news, commentary, analysis, and reports as well as an original commentary from Chad Aldeman who notes that on teacher pensions, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie and Maryland Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley sound different notes but are using the same songbook. That and plenty more on our site. And as always, we'll update throughout the day with new content.
On this day 97 years ago the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned. That tragedy killed 146 workers, mostly young women, and highlighted all manners of industrial and safety shortcomings. The exits from the factory were locked. And those that were not opened inward rather than outward so crowds of escaping workers ended up pinned against doors they couldn't open. The ladders of the fire engines, meanwhile, were not long enough to reach the top floors of the factory where the fire had broken out.
The fire was a pivotal event that shocked the public and spurred unions to action to improve working conditions in the garment industry. Yet in 1911 it didn't take a fire to showcase how dangerous industrial work was. The AFL-CIO estimates there were 100 workplace deaths daily that year. There had been a strike at the Triangle factory 18 months earlier in 1909, which led the owners of Triangle to organize with other factories to squelch demands for greater worker rights and safety. The horrific fire that ended with bodies in the streets covered in tarps began to turn the tide. 350,000 attended public funerals for the workers. The outcry led to action by New York's governor that ultimately led to greater safety and rights for factory workers nationwide.
Almost a century late,r workers rights are a flash point in education as the Vergara v. California case heads toward closing arguments. In that lawsuit, a group of students is suing the state arguing that California's laws granting permanent tenure to teachers after 18 months, its dismissal statutes, and its ‘last in, first out' seniority-based layoff policies are a violation of their rights to quality education under California's constitution. It's unclear whether the plaintiffs can reach that high legal bar - if it was easy to prove a constitutional violation more states would have equitable school finance systems - but the testimony about these provisions has done a lot of political and reputational damage. The insane nature of these policies (a teacher who is deemed ineffective must nonetheless be allowed to continue teaching children to further prove their ineffectiveness) and the perverse incentives they create has been on full display. The cross-examination of some of the expert witnesses called to argue for the teachers unions has been rough. The lawyers did their homework.
Unlike Triangle though, the alignment here is not ruthless management against powerless workers -- instead it's weak management against powerful workers. And many generally pro-labor Democrats are working with the plaintiffs. They don't see dismissal policies that have resulted in only 19 dismissals in all of California for low-performance over the past decade as a cornerstone of workers' rights. Rather they see those policies as well as rules requiring schools to let even effective and seasoned veterans go during layoffs if someone else has even a day more seniority, and a tenure period that even defense witnesses acknowledged is inadequate, as adults-first obstacles to helping low-income children get a better education.
In other words, the problem for the teachers unions is that for many on the political left, it seems an awful long way from Triangle to Vergara. Regardless of what the court decides in this specific case, it's one to watch in the education sector.