Teacher Tenure Brings Calif. Debate to Life


SACRAMENTO (CN) - At a Thursday night debate, Republican Neel Kashkari said Gov. Jerry Brown should be "ashamed" for siding with "union bosses" and appealing a ruling that dismantles the state's teacher tenure laws.
     Kashkari said Brown was more interested in fighting for the unions than the poor kids in the state's public school system.
     "That is so false," Brown replied in the most heated portion of an otherwise uneventful one-hour debate.
     There was the sense in the build-up that Kashkari would have been happy to devote a whole hour to the L.A. Superior Court's controversial ruling in Vergara v. California . As the only candidate standing in the way of Brown's re-election, Kashkari released an 8-minute "documentary" on the eve of the debate that put Brown's supposedly cozy ties to teacher unions front and center.
     That was after the governor last week appealed a finding that five teacher protection laws reward "grossly ineffective" teachers.
     Kashkari alluded to Brown's appeal in a response to a question from panelist and Telemundo news anchor Dunia Elvir about undocumented children entering the United States. At various points, he slammed Brown's supposed neglect of "poor, minority children."
     It was not difficult to trace the line back to the case of the nine poor, minority students Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris are appealing against.
     Attorneys with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher signed on to represent the California public students more than two years ago. Along with the advocacy group Student Matters, they claimed the state's education system violates the equal protection provision of the California Constitution.
     Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Rolf Treu ruled in June that a school system that rewards incompetent teachers "shocks the conscience." There is overwhelming evidence to show that poor and minority students are disproportionately affected by the laws, the judge said.
     "There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms, " Treu wrote in a 16-page final ruling issued Aug. 28.
     Panelist and Los Angeles Times editor Jim Newton asked Brown if he disagreed with Treu's factual conclusions, or if the appeal was lodged on legal grounds.
     "I'm appealing because the Constitution requires that the court of appeal evaluate the laws of California," Brown said. "Do I think there's a problem in the inner cities of California, with 1.6 million kids who speak no English at home, the kids who are homeless and in poverty? Yes.
     "As far as bad teachers, they have no place in the classroom. That's why I signed [teacher dismissal bill] AB-215," Brown said.
     Teacher tenure laws contributed to about "1 to 3 percent" of the problem, Brown added.
     "It obviously has some impact. But I tell you, the lack of language, the lack of income, and the lack of disproportionate funding, which we're now doing ... I think those are major factors" Brown said.
     Kashkari disagreed.
     "The judge got it exactly right," Kashkari said. "This is one of the most important civil rights cases in years. Not just in California, in the country."
     Turning to directly face his opponent, Kashkari was brimming with righteous indignation.
     "You had a choice between fighting for the civil rights of the poor kids and fighting for the union bosses who funded your campaigns. You sided with the union bosses. You should be ashamed of yourself, governor," Kashkari said.
     "That makes no sense at all," Brown said. "That's so false."
     "It's absolutely true, governor. It's absolutely true!"
     The night's most lively exchange was cut short by moderator John Myers in less than five minutes.
     "Gentlemen, I don't think we're going to agree on this issue tonight," Myers said, just as things were getting exciting.
     According to Kashkari, the state's largest teachers union, California Teachers Association, has donated $7 million to Brown.
     Brown leads the largely unknown Kashkari by 16 percentage points in recent polls.
     In June, a PACE/USC Rossier poll found that two-thirds of voters oppose the first-in-last-out statute that Treu ruled is unconstitutional. Six in 10 Californians oppose teacher tenure laws, the poll found.
     Brown's Aug. 29 notice of appeal said that because Treu's ruling affects all schools in the state, a "higher court" should address "the important issues presented in this case."
     "Second, for reasons that are unclear and unexplained, the plaintiffs dismissed key parties before trial - the school districts that actually implement the relevant statutes. As a result, the court's decision applies only to parties that have no role or duties under the challenged laws," the notice of appeal states.
     The filing claims the decision does away with education laws dating back to 1921 "in a short tentative decision."
     "Despite requests from the parties, the court declined to provide a detailed statement of the factual and legal bases for its ruling and instead made its tentative decision the final judgment. Changes of this magnitude, as a matter of law and policy, require appellate review," the 2-page filing states.
     This week, California Teachers Association joined the state in challenging Treu's ruling.
     Calling the lawsuit "meritless" the union said that Treu's decision "is without support in law or fact," and contains errors of judgment that are "too numerous to list."
     The Thursday debate was the first and only debate between Brown and Kashkari before the Nov. 4 election.