Last week a Los Angeles judge lit a firecracker under the foundations of school policies in his ruling on the Vergara V. California case.
He found that several state laws -- regarding teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority in force reduction decisions -- had the perverse effect of putting Los Angeles' most ineffective teachers in front of classrooms with the city's poorest Hispanic and African American students.
The laws, said the judge, "impose a real and appreciable impact on the students' fundamental right to equality of education."
I posted several discussions of the Vergara case earlier this year --"School Lawsuit: Vergara v. California," March 28; "Vergara v. California," Dismissing Bad Teachers," March 30, and "Vergara v. California: California's Tenure Decisions," April 3.
California's two teachers' unions of course have vowed to appeal the Vergara decision. The battle will continue for years.
Still, people around the country are taking notice.
In an editorial last week, the largest and largely leftish Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey called for that state's Education Law Center to file a similar civil rights lawsuit on behalf of poor students in Jersey's inner-city districts.
In fact, New Jersey has walked the walk when it comes to funding inner-city schools. Since 1985, those districts have been allotted substantially more money than other districts. So far, the extra money, often 30 percent or more, has not yielded even marginal improvements.
"Good teachers are an incredibly important variable in student success," said the editorial. "Last year, a Harvard researcher found that students taught by an incompetent teacher lose more than nine months of learning in a single year." (Emphasis from the editorial.)
As in California, New Jersey teachers' unions are the biggest opponents of laws and policies that promote children's access to the best possible teachers.
I find the unions' positions ironic and sad.
Lawsuits like Vergara assert the centrality of good teaching and document the ways in which it has been undermined by state laws promoted by teachers' own professional associations.
So now we have a battle between entrenched unions and a rising chorus of children's activists.
Anyone who has been inspired by a teacher understands that teachers take up their work because they are committed to the best interests of children. But, equally, any parent who has seen a child suffer the consequences of a year in the wrong classroom is painfully aware of the damage bad teachers inflict on students and student motivation.
It is unfortunate that there is no way, outside of industrial-style union negotiations and contentious courtrooms, for communities and teachers to strike a fair balance. To acknowledge the contributions of dedicated, effective teachers. To let go of teachers who, for whatever reason, cannot meet the requirements of a challenging and essential profession.
The teachers' unions are prepared to wage war. So, now, are the student activists. Parents and their children, particularly impoverished parents and children, are stuck in the middle.
Our commitment to maintaining a free society with equal opportunity hangs in the balance.