by Eliza Schafler
Eliza Schafler is an MHAS Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP.
Whatever you think about the effect of teacher tenure on low-income students and communities, one thing is clear: this week, the spotlight is on education. Yesterday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled in Vergara v. California that California laws permitting teacher tenure after two years, making teacher dismissal difficult, and creating a “last in first out” policy for teacher layoffs all violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution of California, because they harm low-income students and students of color. Soon afterward, the public debate began in California and around the country.
Much about the Vergara decision is uncertain. The case is being appealed by teacher’s unions. Even if the decision is upheld, it remains to be seen what kind of constitutional scheme will arise in place of the current one. All we know at the moment is that, in the eyes of this judge, something is seriously wrong.
Yet there is no better time to think critically and the creatively about the plight of low-income students, whose futures depend so much on the support they receive in school. In my work at our Behavioral Health-Legal Partnership (BeHeLP), I often meet low-income families with children languishing in the classroom without proper attention or support, resigning themselves to a fate of frustration, poor performance, and dropping out.
There is also no better time to think hard about how we value and protect teachers in low-income communities, who are faced with the incredible challenge of serving children with serious needs in environments without sufficient resources or stability. Education professionals are not the only solution, but they play a critical role in helping children develop into productive members of their communities, through teaching and evidence-based initiatives such as restorative justice.
We will do our part at BeHeLP by providing educational legal assistance, one family at a time. But bigger things may be on the horizon.