A judicial decision in California that outraged teacher unions has served as a new spark in a long-simmering conflict between Democrats over charter schools, teacher protections and the future of education.
Last week in Vegera vs. California, a state judge struck down statutes protecting teachers with seniority, holding that they violated students' rights to a quality education under the state constitution.
The Deseret News wrapped up the reaction to that case last week, noting that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hailed the ruling, signaling his long-standing split from teachers' unions.
"The students who brought this lawsuit are," Duncan said in a statement, "unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems."
Duncan, we noted, has also been a vocal advocate of charter schools, for related reasons.
Both of these positions put Duncan distinctly at odds with public teacher unions, one of the oldest and staunchest Democratic constituencies. In the aftermath of the California education quake, that intraparty divide is getting renewed attention.
Duncan's praise of the Vegera decision led to a stinging rebuke from Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Last week the New York Times, a left-leaning bastion on its editorial pages, offered a nuanced assessment of the California decision before concluding, "Teachers deserve reasonable due process rights and job protections. But the unions can either work to change the anachronistic policies cited by the court or they will have change thrust upon them."
Conor P. Williams at the New Republic presaged some of this soul-searching earlier this month in a piece assessing where Hillary Clinton might come down on education. He noted that there are two distinct camps in the Democratic party.
"The more traditional Democratic approach to education emphasizes adequate funding of schools, the role of poverty in affecting educational outcomes, teachers’ job protections and collective bargaining rights," Williams wrote, a perspective that usually falls in tight alignment with teacher unions.
This paradigm of the traditionalists today is represented by Diane Ravitch, Williams wrote. Ravitch, not surprisingly, responded to the Vegera decision in the Huffington Post by defending teachers, arguing they are being blamed for budgetary failures.
"Millions more dollars will be spent to litigate the issues in California and elsewhere," Ravitch wrote, "but what will students gain? Nothing. The poorest, neediest students will still be in schools that lack the resources to meet their needs. They will still be in schools where classes are too large. They will still be in buildings that need repairs. They will still be in schools where the arts program and nurses and counselors were eliminated by budget cuts."
The other side consists of the "reformers," represented by Duncan, who seek to "increase accountability and performance in American schools through a variety of measures. Reformers generally support high academic standards, better data collection on student performance and school choice policies (especially charter schools)," according to Williams.
Among the "reformers" is also Sen. Corey Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who as mayor was a vocal advocate of charter schools and the reform movement generally.