Monday, February 17, 2014

Children sue in order to learn

Schoolchildren in Los Angeles are currently pleading in court for the opportunity to learn. They claim bad teachers prevent them from doing so.

California’s teachers’ unions are among the most powerful in the nation. California statutes are so skewed in favor of teachers’ job security that even grossly incompetent educators are almost impossible to dismiss. For instance, it can cost $250,000 to $450,000 — and years of legal effort — to remove a grossly incompetent K–12 public-school teacher from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Once removed, the teacher can still be reinstated by a separate governing board.

The extreme difficulty of dismissal became apparent in 2012 with the defeat of a bill aimed at making it easier to fire teachers who are accused of sex crimes. A headline in the California Catholic Daily (July 17, 2012) read, “California Teachers Union Kills Anti-Pedophile Law.” A year later (Sept. 16, 2013), the National Review protested a union-backed policy that closed a window on many sex-abuse victims, preventing them from suing public schools. The article stated, “If you want to molest children in California … [m]ake sure you have a good union,” because “if it comes down to the interests of a unionized government employee vs. those of a nonunionized sex-crime victim, look for the union label.”

On January 27, Vergara v. California began a non-jury trial before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu. The plaintiffs are nine public-school students and their parents. They claim that statutes protecting the jobs of grossly incompetent teachers constitute a denial of education. Minority children suffer especially, because such teachers are often transferred to schools in minority and poor areas; thus, implementation of the statutes violates the state’s constitutional guarantee of an equal education as well. The trial is expected to stretch through February. If successful, Vergara may overturn some of the rules that form the current foundation of the state’s teachers’ unions.

The trial could become a national test case of similar rules governing teachers’ employment in other states where the same concerns for children and criticisms of teachers’ unions are being voiced. Many school officials join in the call for a dramatic overhaul. Three states and Washington, DC, have already swept away tenure for teachers; others have eliminated seniority as the touchstone for promoting or retaining teachers. The New York Times (Jan. 31, 2014) reported that now “school districts in 29 states use poor effectiveness as grounds for dismissal.… [And, just] five years ago, no states allowed student performance to be considered in teachers’ evaluations.… Now, 20 states require such data.”

In each instance, teachers’ unions have fought for the status quo. Parents — and now children — have fought for change that allows real education to occur in schools.

Background of Vergara

The two largest teachers’ unions in the state are the California Teachers Association (CTA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. They have successfully controlled the politics of education in the state and protected the interests of their members, even of those who commit severe misconduct.

On November 1, 2010, the education-reform group Students Matter was formed in California. It describes itself as a “national nonprofit dedicated to sponsoring impact litigation to promote access to quality public education.” Its first case is Vergara. Founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David F. Welch, and backed by several wealthy supporters, Vergara has the finances to field an expert legal team, including former U.S. solicitor general Theodore B. Olson.

The lawsuit (PDF) was filed in the California Superior Court for Los Angeles County on May 14, 2012. Predictably, Vergara had to jump through various hoops, including several motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment, before being cleared for trial. The trial targets five California statutes:

    A permanent employment statute, by which teachers are granted or denied tenure (lifetime employment) after only 18 months.
Three dismissal statutes that are so protective of teachers that “in the past 10 years in the entire state of California, only 91 teachers have been dismissed.” (There are currently about 275,000 K–12 public-school teachers in California.)
 The “last in, first out” layoff statute, by which layoffs are determined by seniority rather than by merit.

The defendants originally named in the complaint included the state of California and two individual school districts. Although the teachers’ unions were not named, they chose to become intervenors; that is, they voluntarily joined as defendants to contest the plaintiffs’ claims. (The defendants have changed in other ways over time.) All the defendants argue that legally protecting teachers’ jobs is necessary to retain and attract quality educators who would otherwise be lured away by the private sector.

Students Matter responds that Vergara would not diminish teachers’ protection from arbitrary and capricious firing. Federal and state laws already protect all employees against discrimination and wrongful termination. Additionally, the California Constitution ensures all public employees due process and especially protects all public employees from unfounded termination — just as the Constitution protects the educational rights of children.

Vergara pointedly targets only teacher-employment laws “that go far, far beyond due process.”

Vergara is assured of national headlines, because the controversy is widespread. The plaintiffs plan to have children testify under oath about their inability to learn due to grossly incompetent teachers. According to the plaintiff’s attorney Theodore Boutrous, the now-17-year-old plaintiff Beatriz Vergara will testify about “teachers falling asleep in class, sitting and reading newspapers or playing YouTube videos while ignoring students.”

At a press conference outside the courthouse on the first day of the trial, one student explained that having negligent teachers meant she couldn’t read before the 3rd grade. Student plaintiff Raylene Monterroza stated:

    "When I’ve had great teachers, I’ve felt like my dreams were possible. Having teachers, who believed in me and cared about whether I learned and grew as a student or not, made all the difference in the world. But when I had teachers who seemed like they didn’t even want to be there and couldn’t teach, I had to find a way out."

No parent can hear such reports of teacher incompetence and apathy without feeling rage and betrayal. This is especially true given California’s remarkably high tax rate, which is justified in the name of education.

The case also pits school official against school official and union. The first witness called by the plaintiffs’ attorneys was Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy. The Superintendent claimed the permanent employment statute (mentioned above) did not allow enough time to assess whether teachers should have tenure. “Not remotely,” he said. He also denied that tenure was necessary to attract and retain teachers, saying “Job stability and tenure do not appear to be linked.”


Vergara is a compelling case with implications that will ripple outward, whether or not there is a victory in court. As one plaintiff’s attorney stated, “Even though we’re focused in California constitutional provisions, we think it could provide a model for challenging the laws of other states that have the same arbitrary unequal effects on rights of students.”


The real ‘spaghetti monster’ is campus censorship

It's not just faith-baiting atheists who are under attack from Britain’s ban-happy students' unions

Anyone familiar with the New Atheism movement will be familiar with the supposedly hilarious comparisons of the idea of a god to that of a ‘flying spaghetti monster’. In the same way that it is impossible to disprove the prospect of a god, it is also impossible to disprove the existence of a ‘flying spaghetti monster’. Ergo, the onus to prove the existence of an all-mighty supreme being lies with those proposing it. Observe any debate between the partisans of New Atheism and their religious opponents, and soon you will encounter this argument being wheeled out, with the usual self-satisfaction of Dawkinites. This rhetorical device, along with other roughly-correct-but-tired clichés, forms a central part of the lexicon of the New Atheism movement.

So it was only to be expected that the spaghetti monster would find itself being used as an advertisement by a group of students united in their lack of belief, the South Bank University Atheist Society. As a design for a poster, the society decided to replace the image of God in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, The Creation of Adam, with the image of a spaghetti monster.

As has become an all-too-familiar occurrence in recent years, the big wigs of the students’ union swung into action, resulting in the poster being removed and the Atheist Society being banned from a start-of-term student event. Originally, the society was told the ban was due to a shame-free Adam bearing his bodily all in the poster, as shown in the original image in that great den of licentiousness, the Vatican. However, the students’ union soon changed its mind and decided it was the edited part of the poster – the replacement of God with spaghetti – that was the cause of offence.

The case is similar to the incident at the London School of Economics (LSE) freshers’ fair last year, in which a group of atheist students decided to don t-shirts depicting Jesus and the prophet Muhammad in cartoon form. University officials forced students to cover up the offending images, citing religious offence.

Both cases are similar in that they are both instances where claims of religious offence have led to censorship. The supposed right of certain, seemingly unidentified students not to have their religious sensitivities offended has trumped the right of groups of atheist students to wear moderately funny t-shirts or display unfunny posters – a trampling of their freedom of expression. In both cases, the authorities eventually reversed their decision after an outcry.

However, there is another similarity. Both these cases involving an infringement of freedom of expression in the name of religion have been taken up by certain big names. Ever itching for a fight with religion, certain public figures will furiously tweet about the injustice of it all, write a blog or opinion piece, and proclaim boldly (and correctly) that ‘no one has the right not to be offended’.

However, these acts of censorship at universities are not taking place in isolation. Banning and censoring has become an all-too-common occurrence on university campuses. Since September 2013, beginning with the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, roughly 20 students’ unions have banned the summer hit ‘Blurred Lines’ by R&B singer Robin Thicke from being played in union facilities, on the grounds that its lyrics are sexist and offensive. Likewise, over 30 universities have banned the sale of the Sun newspaper on campus due to its Page 3 feature, where buxom young women bare their breasts.

While bans and acts of censorship on the grounds of religious offence are not justified, they are based on the idea that if something is offensive – actually or potentially – to certain segments of the student population, then it can rightfully be banned. Bans, whether on the basis of religion or sexism, are based on intolerance, an intolerance of certain things that some people may find objectionable, distasteful, uncouth or offensive, and which in turn compels them to be censored – whether it is Robin Thicke’s lewd lyrics or Photoshopped frescos.

Yet the faith-bashing warriors who raged against the censoring of t-shirts at the LSE and the censoring of a poster at South Bank University will, for the most part, have little to say about the wider culture of bans and censorship at universities. The banning of the spaghetti-monster poster at South Bank is not a creeping resurgence of intolerant religion or a capitulation to Christian complainers by university officials. Rather, it is part of an increasingly intolerant climate at universities in which offence, religion-based or otherwise, is deemed a legitimate ground for something to be banned. Were it not for this nexus of intolerance and offence-taking at the modern university, the spaghetti-monster poster would have survived. 


British Schools could use scout leaders to break teachers’ strike

Schools are being told to recruit an army of volunteers made up of scout leaders and sports coaches to break a looming national teachers’ strike.

Guidance issued by the Department for Education says that volunteers with criminal record checks could “work unsupervised with children” to keep schools open during strike days.

Head teachers should consider dropping the national curriculum for the day and merging classes together to ensure children can remain in school in the face of industrial action, it is claimed.

The document praises the actions of schools that have brought in theatre companies or football coaches to deliver whole-school activities – and covered the costs by deducting a day’s pay from striking teachers.

It comes after one of the country’s biggest teaching unions announced plans for the first national walk-out in almost three years.

The National Union of Teachers said members would walk out on March 26 as part of a long-running row over pay, pensions and working conditions.

The strike threatens to paralyse the state education system, causing chaos for millions of parents who will be forced take the day off work or pay for childcare.

But guidance to more than 21,000 state schools in England – updated by the DfE this month – says head teachers should “take all reasonable steps to keep the school open for as many pupils as possible”.

Under employment rules, teacher supply agencies are barred from making staff on their books available to cover a strike.

However, the guidance says schools can get around the ban by directly employing them for the day, “building up a bank” of temporary teachers.

It also says that schools should use "existing members of the school volunteer workforce” – normally parents or members of the local community who regularly help out – provided they have full criminal record checks to provide supervision.

“Use volunteers who have a [Disclosure and Barring Service] check from another walk of life, for example as a sports coach or scout group helper,” says the guidance. “These volunteers could work unsupervised with children subject to the head teacher carrying out a risk assessment.”

The document even says that schools can bring in a “retired head teacher” to cover for the head if he or she is taking part in the industrial action.

The guidance provides a series of examples in which schools have been able to stay open by taking a “flexible” approach to lessons.

One school “collapsed classes” into one so that large groups could be supervised to carry out exam practice or revision sessions.

Another suspended the usual timetable in favour an “activity day”, with a theatre company invited in to deliver performances and workshops in the school hall.

One school asked a local football coaching company to deliver activities for the whole day, adding: “The school used the money saved from the deduction of a day’s pay from striking teachers to support this approach.”


No comments: