CA poll: Public schools good, tenure bad

A new poll indicated that Californians broadly supported public school reform, even among respondents whose support for public education remained strong:

“Californians trust their public school teachers and want to spend more money supporting public schools, according to a recent poll. […] California voters also say they oppose the state’s strong tenure laws and believe that all public school teachers should be held accountable through regular performance evaluations, according to the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, released this week.”

school studentThe results were seen by analysts as a danger sign for teachers unions, which have long tied the success of public education to their own strength. A growing consensus that the two have fallen out of sync would make it harder for unions to maintain the status quo, which has famously protected even bad teachers from losing their jobs.

“It’s worth watching what happens in California,” University of Oregon education scholar David T. Conley told the Wall Street Journal. “If a new model emerges it’s going to attract a lot of attention around the nation.”

Demographic differences

The poll also suggested that some sharp demographic differences persisted in how Californians perceive other controversial efforts at public school reform. The implementation of the new Common Core standards, for instance, has provoked outrage and resistance across the country — but not always from a strong majority.

In California, the poll indicated, opinion was divided over standardized testing of the kind Common Core favors. “A majority of Latino voters, 55 percent, said mandatory exams improve public education in the state by gauging student progress and providing teachers with vital information,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. But roughly “the same percentage of white voters said such exams are harmful because they force educators to narrow instruction and don’t account for different styles of learning.”

Life after Vergara

The political and legal weakness of California’s teachers unions was laid bare by the Vergara decision, which struck a strong blow against protective tenure practices by deeming them an infringement of students’ constitutional rights. “The case has produced a lot of headlines but very little movement inside the state Capitol,” as KQED observed. “And yet the new poll suggests real skepticism among the public. Just 7 percent of those surveyed believe the current two-year tenure threshold is the right level. And a whopping 82 percent believe that performance should play more of a role in deciding which teachers to keep and which ones to fire.”

One reason for Sacramento’s inaction: the final impact of the Vergara ruling has yet to be decided by the courts. As previously noted, one recent Supreme Court holding on public housing law did give the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers some reason for optimism. Vergara‘s fate could hinge on a higher court’s determination as to whether it properly applied the so-called “disparate impact” standard:

“The analogies between Texas public housing laws and California education laws are not precise. But if [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia’s framing of what constitutes unconstitutional racial discrimination — conscious, intentional, consequential bias in the crafting of a law — holds for a majority of the high court, then the California education status quo is likely to survive the Vergara case.”

Private challenges

But in the interim, in Vergara‘s wake, unions have faced a wave of follow-on litigation. In addition to a broad challenge against collecting dues from all teachers, four state teachers have taken the unions to court over their use of dues “for political activities,” the Washington Post reported. “The plaintiffs argue that unions are violating their constitutional right to free speech by forcing them to either support union-favored causes and candidates or lose access to important job benefits. At stake are tens of millions of dollars in dues collected by the state’s two largest teachers unions,” the CTA and the CFT.

Although union leaders have responded to the litigation by portraying its backers as part of a broader crusade against unions of all types, the USC Dornsife/Times poll suggests that Californians are inclined to think of the role and power of unions at public schools as an issue distinct from broader debates over the strength and purpose of organized labor in America.

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