New Jersey’s largest newspaper unsurprisingly endorsed the absurd finding of a California judge that employment protections for school employees cause school failure and therefore constitute a violation of the U.S. Constitution. The endorsement is a continuation of the newspaper’s unholy crusade against public employees who have the audacity to assert their human rights in the face of management convictions that all workers are both expendable and interchangeable.
Inexplicably, the newspaper calls on the Education Law Center (ELC) to file such a suit in New Jersey, apparently unaware that a source of funding for the ELC is the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s largest teachers’ union. Apparently, The Star-Ledger believes the union should commit an act of self-mutilation, if not suicide, in support of the bizarre idea that educational failure is caused, not by racial isolation, not by discrimination, not by poverty, not by neglect–but by employment protections. Thus:
“They’ve helped perpetuate a hierarchy in which the best teachers generally wind up at the most desirable schools, and some of the worst ones at high-poverty schools, where it can take years of bureaucracy and tens of thousands of dollars to get rid of them.”
The evidence for this is what, exactly? And just what does “years of bureaucracy” mean, anyway? Is bureaucracy measurable in years?
But let’s pass over that and go to the heart of the matter. The Vergara case in California is the logical consequence of the failure of the political system to address the real causes of school failure. Anyone who pays the slightest attention to education sees the inevitable link between racial isolation and poverty and between poverty and school failure.
In a more hopeful time, the post-war period, before billionaires took over both politics and the way media parrots the silliness of self-serving policies, the nation actually confronted the consequences of the deepest stain on the United States’ claim as a free, democratic nation–African slavery and later oppression.
Less than a century after the Civil War, and just 60 years ago, the US Supreme Court outlawed separate public school systems, unleashing decades of efforts by both federal and state courts to end racial segregation. In New Jersey, that culminated in the 1971 state Supreme Court decision Jenkins v. Morristown.
In that decision, the court–then, a shining example of courageous, progressive jurisprudence–insisted New Jersey could no longer use the excuse that, well, racial isolation wasn’t deliberate, it just happened that way–because poor black people and more affluent white people just somehow accidentally decided to live in separate places and that, sort of, resulted in bad schools for one group. Guess which?
The court said, “When the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education….struck down segregated schools, it recognized that they generate a feeling of racial inferiority and result in a denial of equal educational opportunities to the Negro children who must attend them. However, as we said in Booker, while such feeling and denial may appear in intensified form when segregation represents official policy, ‘they also appear when segregation in fact, though not official policy, results from long standing housing and economic discrimination and the rigid application of neighborhood school districting.”’
The court repeatedly related educational achievement to isolation and insisted a “thorough and efficient” education could not be provided on a racially segregated basis: “The history and vigor of our State’s policy in favor of a thorough and efficient public school system are matched in its policy against racial discrimination and segregation in the public schools. Since 1881 there has been explicit legislation declaring it unlawful to exclude a child from any public school because of his race.”
The ruling in Jenkins–which, by the way, led to the creation of an excellent consolidated Morris School District–led to the filing of a variety of law suits seeking the elimination of school district lines. If the logic of the Jenkins ruling had been allowed and converted into policy, the chances are good we would have a far more integrated, county-based school system in New Jersey, one that would be not only fairer in terms of racial integration but also in terms of taxation.
But that was not to be. The state’s politicians had no stomach for it and the courts backed down. No stomach for the change that would be required to bring about the equity that might have solved the educational problem. The state turned, instead, to the question of funding equity. The Jenkins case would soon be forgotten–attention would be aimed instead at the related cases Robinson v. Cahill and Abbot vs. Burke that essentially changed the subject from race to money.
Paul Tractenberg, a founder of the ELC and the state’s leading expert on school law, calls the school finance cases, “the price we pay for not integrating our schools.” Recently, Tractenberg, a Rutgers Law School professor, issued a report showing the state’s schools are more segregated than ever–more segregated, even, than Mississippi’s schools. He calls our system “apartheid schools.”
In 1990, then Chief Justice Robert Wilentz–a giant of of a jurist, a giant of a public servant, especially compared to the moral midgets running the state today–wrote about funding education, “Our constitutional mandate does not allow us to consign poorer children permanently to an inferior education on the theory they cannot afford a better one.”
Compare that to the 2011 decision in which Associate Justice Jaynee LaVecchia–and she is one of the best on the court today–all but surrendered to the wishes of the other two branches of government by not requiring full funding of the school aid formula. The court that year made the issue standing instead of constitutional requirements.
Tractenberg is absolutely correct–New Jersey, having refused to integrate its schools, paid a different sort of price. In cash. But, in the end, the political system and the courts had no stomach for the logic behind seeking to reform schools though equitable funding, either–the state is somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion behind in the funding of the court-approved school aid formula. The courts have been cowed by the bluster of Chris Christie, the clown prince of governors (see Jimmy Fallon).
So, then, the poorest children among us, denied their constitutional rights to attend integrated schools, also have been denied their constitutional right to attend equitably-financed schools. As Marx tells us, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
But this should be added, as well: The political system and the courts and the governor also have had no stomach for enforcing the consequences of the Mt. Laurel decision that also would have integrated New Jersey’s racially isolated communities.
Then, in the 1980s, the movement began for a state takeover of New Jersey’s public schools. The state, after all, was ultimately responsible for providing the “thorough and efficient” system of public education required by the Constitution. That culminated in the state seizure of the Jersey City, Paterson, Newark, and Camden school systems. The experience ultimately led to what must have been a eureka moment on the part of the state’s leadership: Without the kind of funding that will eradicate discrepancies in the lives of poor and rich, without equalizing the schools racially and financially, without creating an equitable society–gaps in the achievement of the groups will persist no matter who is running the show. New Jersey just won’t spend the money–just as it won’t integrate the schools and provide accessible housing to the poor and people of color.
So our cowardly leaders have found a new solution to school failure–privatization. We will tell parents that “choice” is the “civil rights issue of our time”–a Cory Booker line that, like many Cory Booker lines, sounds great but means nothing. Rhetoric is cheap, it doesn’t cost anything. Just words. We will manipulate the facts to pretend charter schools provide a superior form of education. We will ensure the easiest students to teach will be sent to charters while the rest will be warehoused in failing public schools–the very failure of which will be counted as reasons to believe in privatization.
We will provide choice–so long as the poor and people of color don’t choose to live in affluent suburbs and go to the schools there. That sort of choice is not tolerated here. Their choice is limited to politically connected and selective charters–if they can get in–and resources-stripped public schools.
Of course, privately-operated charters don’t like employee unions that protect the seniority and due process rights of teachers and other instructional workers. Unions represent an obstacle to mass privatization and a drag on profits. So let’s blame school failure on the unions, let’s bust them with decisions like the Vergara ruling in California–financed by the same people who are bringing us charter schools.
So now we can have school reform that won’t require whites and blacks and browns to live together.
So now we can have school reform that won’t require children of different races to attend class together.
So now we can have school reform that won’t require us to keep paying for increased costs of schooling.
So now we can have school reform that won’t make us face the reality of living in an America of searing racial and income inequality.
So now we can have school reform that busts unions and keeps employees in their place.
So now we can have school reform that offers schools with untrained, inexperienced amateur teachers–like those provided by Teach for America–who won’t cost much, can be easily fired, and will never work long enough to earn pensions.
So now we can have school reform that isn’t reform at all, but an illusion created by billionaires and perpetrated by their allies in the media.
Let’s keep repeating our history–the tragedy of racism and inequality, the farce of corporate school reform, the end result of failure. But, so long as there is corporate media to write editorials blaming teachers for failure instead of pervasive injustice, we will keep reassuring ourselves we don’t need to make any sacrifices to build a just society.
Tragedy. Farce. Another Star-Ledger editorial invoking the elite’s contempt for working people–including, I might add, working journalists who, too often, serve as what Stalin called the “useful idiots” of the power elite.
Because they help the powerful just keep blaming the powerless.