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In the Aftermath of Vergara, Politics is Everything

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By David Menefee-Libey and CTK

It's important not to be naïve about the Vergara ruling.  Politics, not the courts, will decide how deep an impact the case has.

Yesterday, we posted our reading of Judge Rolf Treu's (pronounced "troy") ruling in Vergara: that it was a "crafty, limited ruling."  Today, as the case gains national attention, we can see that the specifics of the ruling itself-and the legal issues involved-are far less important than the politics of it.

The parties to the case are trying to make the most of their moment by playing up the drama.  From Students Matter: "This is a truly historic day for public education in California. The two‐month trial and the court's decision have demonstrated that there is an overwhelming impetus for change."   From the California Teachers Association: "This lawsuit has nothing to do with what's best for kids, but was manufactured by a Silicon Valley millionaire [David Welch], and a corporate PR firm to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on our schools."

Media outlets are happy to embrace the high-drama narrative, in part because it draws readers.  There are a lot of misleading headlines out there this morning.  "Judge Rejects Teacher Tenure for California," says the New York Times.  From USA Today: "Judge Strikes Down California Teacher Tenure."  And so on.

The actual ruling itself can't sustain that narrative.  The judge struck down a small part of the California tenure law, not teacher tenure in general.  Similarly, Judge Treu struck down what he called the "uber due process" of teacher discipline and layoff rules in a particular law, but he accepted the validity of due process laws for teacher hiring and firing.  As a matter of policy, it would take fairly minor tweaks to California law to bring it into compliance with Treu's ruling.

But that hardly matters now.  The world of political campaigns and lobbying doesn't trade in subtleties.  Education politics has turned into a white-hat, black-hat world where moralizing is more important than solving real problems.

Maybe it's better to move the fight from the court to the legislature.  Courts should lay the ground rules for American education, but we elect legislatures and governors to make policy about things like teacher tenure and the Common Core.  It's in their hands now, and all the players are frantically lobbying them for advantage.  That's what real politics is about.

It's early in the game, but at this point, we think the corporate reformers have the advantage and are playing the game with more sophistication.  They have the law on their side-even though they're exaggerating what the court has ruled-and their allies are challenging teacher tenure in states around the country.

The teacher unions, in our view, are playing into their hands so far.  They're encouraging a sweeping view of Judge Treu's ruling and are fighting to preserve the specific laws Treu threw out, instead of looking ahead and proposing better alternatives that would make this case moot.  They're wasting time publicly attacking Treu's judgment and David Welch's bankrolling of Students Matter.  Time is not on their side.

Well, we told you June was going to be an exciting month in California education.  Grab the popcorn.

(David Menefee-Libey is professor of politics at Pomona College.)

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