California lesson: Education is more than money

The News TribuneJune 15, 2014 

Marcellus McRae, plaintiff’s co-lead counsel, left, is joined by members of Students Matter, a national educational nonprofit that successfully sued the state of California over teacher tenure and other job protections. The lawsuit was backed by billionaire David Welch, far right, founder of Students Matter.


A Los Angeles judge rocked the nation Tuesday by ruling that the California constitution doesn’t merely guarantee children an education — it guarantees them a good education. His thinking doesn’t translate directly into Washington law, more’s the pity.

Students here would benefit if Judge Rolf Treu’s fundamental point were fully embraced by the Legislature and state Supreme Court.

Our high court is rightfully demanding that lawmakers step up to their constitutional duty to “make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” That’s what its 2012 McCleary v. State was all about.

But the court seems to be increasingly equating “ample provision” with “spend lots more money.” Its follow-up demands — one in January, one Thursday — have focused only on dollars. But dollars are a means to an end. The end is a 21st-century education for “all students.” To reach this end, more money is necessary but not sufficient.

The California case offers dramatic proof that dollars aren’t enough. Nine students had sued the state, saying its extreme job protections for teachers were denying children a fair and equal education.

California offers rookie teachers a lifelong lock on their jobs after roughly 18 months. The law is titled, with remarkable candor, “the Permanent Employment Statute.”

Most teachers are skilled and dedicated; anyone who doubts it should spend a few days in public school classrooms. But a small percentage are ineffective, and others have lost the fire in the belly that first drew them to this high calling.

Effective and ineffective teachers can be distinguished by improvements in their students’ performance. Overwhelming evidence of this fact, a Harvard-Columbia study of 2.5 million students over 20 years, was published in 2012. That and similar studies are hard science. Those who reject the science for political reasons have no business beefing about climate change deniers.

In California, seniority reigns supreme. Veteran teachers, however mediocre, always bump newer teachers, however good. The protections have tended to concentrate less effective teachers in high-poverty schools.

Treu struck down these job protections after finding they were a reason many poor and minority students were getting unequal and sometimes abysmal instruction. “The evidence is compelling,” he wrote. “Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

Washington law is more student-friendly. Ineffective teachers can be fired here if administrators go through the effort of rigorously evaluating them. We’ve made considerable progress from trade union-inspired tenure and seniority rules.

But Treu’s core logic holds as much in Washington as in California. “Ample provision” has to mean more than X dollars per student, Y number of instructional days, plus an adult with a teaching certificate standing in front of the class.

In addition to money, “ample” has to mean effective and accountable schools that turn the additional McCleary dollars into higher performance. If Washington students wind up getting nothing more for the extra billions the court has ordered, the ruling will be remembered as an abject failure.

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