For generations, teachers’ unions have been the strongest force shaping education policy and a major player in political campaigns. They fought for better teacher pay and job security – but they also supported desegregation, and the expansion of rights for students with special needs.
But Tuesday's decision by a Los Angeles trial court judge to toss out teacher tenure and other hard-fought job protections showed the growing power of their greatest adversary: the charter reform and parent choice movement.
“This is definitely not a David and Goliath battle,” said Kevin Gordon a Sacramento lobbyist representing school districts. "It’s Goliath and Goliath. It’s like two very powerful interests - very well moneyed private sector interests, a very well-funded, major union - you know, banging together over this policy issue.”
Backed by the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations the self-proclaimed reform movement, he said, has become a serious force over the past decade.
While the numbers of charter schools have ballooned in Los Angeles, other efforts to change legislation haven't always been successful. Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said he's been pleading Sacramento lawmakers to streamline the teacher firing process for years, to no avail.
But on Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said that's exactly what needs to happen. He ruled laws grating teachers a right to tenure after two years, multi-layered hearings for discipline or dismissal and mandating layoffs be based solely on seniority violate California’s constitutional guarantee of an adequate public school education. He said these rules particularly harm poor and minority students, violating the equal protection clause in the state constitution.
The suit was financed by a new player, Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch who founded the non-profit Students Matter to file public interest lawsuits. The group said it intends to file similar suits in other states.
“I believe in public education," Welch said Tuesday after the winning decision. "I believe and have experienced the impact of great educators, and I believe in the children of our state. But I also believe our public education system is failing those children.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the nation’s second largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, bristles at these statements.
She and other union leaders claim the purpose of the reform movement is to destroy teachers’ unions. Charter schools, for instance, don’t have to hire union-represented teachers.
“When rich folks who’ve just spent a huge amount of money taking away teacher rights and trying to pit teachers versus kids talk about sharing power," she said, "let them actually roll up their sleeves and help us educate kids in schools."
But some said the changes are long overdue - and the fact that unions for years crushed attempts at even moderate changes to tenure and discipline rules is a sign of their own misguided priorities.
“I think the teaching profession has to change to make sure we always have qualified and effective teachers in the classroom,” said former L.A. Unified school board member Marlene Canter. “These particular rules ... they’re so antiquated.”
USC education researcher Katharine Strunk said the battle between unions and the reform movement may help kids in the end.
“It’s really up now to the state legislature to say: what can we do better to serve our kids and to serve our teachers," she said. "And I think the union has a very strong - should have a very strong - role to play in that discussion, as should other groups that represent parents, taxpayers, and other stakeholder groups.”
Certainly the unions have no intention of backing down.
“You know, every time there’s a decision like this," Weingarten said, "people write our obituary.”
As the lawyers hired by Students Matter on Tuesday publicly asked unions to "lay down their swords" and join in writing new legislation in Sacramento peeling back teachers rights, union leaders had another message: they vowed to appeal Treu's decision.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Marlene Canter's last name. KPCC regrets the error.