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Vergara vs. California: Are the top 0.1% buying their version of education reform?

- June 23, 2014

On Tuesday, a California superior-court judge ruled that the state’s teacher tenure system discriminates against kids from low-income families. Based on testimony that one to three percent of California teachers are likely “grossly ineffective”—thousands of people, who mostly teach at low-income schools—he reasoned that current tenure policies “impose a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.” The ruling, in Vergara v. California, has the potential to overturn five state laws governing how long it takes for a teacher to earn tenure; the legal maneuvers necessary to remove a tenured teacher; and which teachers are laid off first in the event of budget cuts or school closings.

— Dana Goldstein writing for the Atlantic.
The Vergara vs. California decision has garnered a great deal of media attention. It has been covered as an education story, a labor story, a legal story, but the connection to another highly topical subject has been largely overlooked: Vergara vs. California is an income-inequality story.
Put another way, the decision, the course of the trial, even the very existence of the case were largely the result of actions of a small set of very wealthy men. What’s more, this is true for almost every major education reform initiative from Common Core to L.A.’s billion-dollar iPad program to endless charter school pushes. Though the list of names does vary somewhat from story to story, the same figures keep popping up. For instance, it is rare to find a major reform initiative that does not involve someone who has worked for or received support from Eli Broad or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Perhaps more importantly, even when the faces are new, the résumés are remarkably similar: extremely wealthy present or former CEOs, usually male and from the tech industry, with a proclivity for MBA-style rhetoric and approaches. Given the importance of the CEO demographic, it is not surprising that arguably the most powerful figures in the education reform movements of the United States and Britain (David Coleman and Michael Barber, respectively) both worked at McKinsey and Co., the definitive management consulting firm. (Definitive does not mean non-controversial. Barry Ritholtz has a good overview, and you can see my more education-centered take here and here.

The pair of education advocates [Gene Wilhoit, and the previously mentioned David Coleman] had a big idea, a new approach to transform every public-school classroom in America. By early 2008, many of the nation’s top politicians and education leaders had lined up in support.
But that wasn’t enough. The duo needed money —tens of millions of dollars, at least — and they needed a champion who could overcome the politics that had thwarted every previous attempt to institute national standards.
So they turned to the richest man in the world.

— from “How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution” by The Post’s Lyndsey Layton.
Of course, presence does not equate to influence, and influence is not necessarily bad. In order to get to a discussion of social good, we need to start by asking:
Does this group have a disproportionate influence over the current direction of education?
And, if so, is this disproportionate influence in some way undemocratic?
Consider the cases of Common Core and Vergara vs. California. With the former, it is important to note how unlikely it would have been for this program to get off the ground without Bill Gates. Both Coleman and Common Core have always been controversial. Coleman came into the education field strictly on the weight of his work with McKinsey, having no experience either as a teacher or a researcher. As for Common Core, almost immediately after gaining national attention, the proposed standards were greeted with considerable opposition. Here’s popular EdWeek blogger Anthony Cody writing in July 2009:

Sixty individuals, ONE teacher among them, will write national education standards in the next five months, in a secret process that excludes effective input from students, parents or teachers.

Along with the standards, a great deal of additional related material (curricular suggestions, sample lessons) were released, often to extremely negative reviews (including a particularly harsh reaction toward a scripted lesson that made the “odd” decision to teach the Gettysburg Address without referring to the Civil War).
Given the scale of Common Core, the speed of its adoption and, to put it mildly, its lack of grass-roots support, it is difficult to imagine that the initiative would be where it is today if not for Gates’s influence. By the same token, it is equally difficult to argue that competing ideas with more popular support but less influence behind them have gotten the same chance.
With Vergara, the difference is even starker, since it raises questions of equal access to the courts. Virtually every aspect of the case, from the founding of the organization Students Matter to the selection of plaintiffs to the quality of representation to the key witnesses to the research cited in the decision were influenced and, in some cases made possible, by a handful of large personal fortunes.
Students Matter was founded by David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur of considerable wealth and even more formidable connections. From the Mercury News:

And wealth has attracted more wealth — the Broad Foundation, a controversial education reform organization opposed by most teachers unions, and the Walton Family Foundation, started by Walmart founder Sam Walton, have donated to Students Matter. The nonprofit faced costs including a $1.1 million bill in 2012 from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the high-powered law firm that argued the court case.

The selection of defendants appears to have been based on their willingness to challenge the statutes Welch et al. wanted overturned, not on the level of harm they suffered. There does not seem to be any evidence that any of the students had a tenured but grossly ineffective teacher. Four of the nine weren’t even attending schools that had tenure. From the defense’s post-trial brief:

Plaintiffs Monterroza and Martinez both attend charter schools that are not subject to the challenged statutes at all. Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara both attend a “Pilot School” in LAUSD that is free to let teachers go at the end of the school year for any reason, including ineffectiveness.

Actually, one of the “grossly ineffective teachers” had earlier been named teacher of the year (you can see an example of her work here).
In the trial itself, perhaps the most damning testimony came from Harvard professor Thomas Kane and LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy (previously best known for his disastrous iPad initiative). The quality of their testimony is outside of the scope of this conversation; what is relevant is that much of Kane’s research was funded by the Gates Foundation while Deasy is a former deputy director of the education division of the Gates Foundation and a graduate of Broad’s superintendent academy.
Common Core and Vergara are, of course, isolated instances, but they are both important and representative. In case after case, theories and approaches favored by a handful of very wealthy individuals received preferential treatment in the education debate. You cannot call that a democratic process.