Credit: Students Matter
Education activist David Welch speaks after Judge Rolf Treu issued his 2014 decision in the Vergara lawsuit.

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur who unsuccessfully took on teacher tenure in court is now supporting a constitutional amendment aimed at requiring California to provide “high-quality” public education for all students.

The effort expressly takes aim at state laws, policies and regulations that “interfere with a right to a high-quality education.” It also says that the proposed remedies “shall not include new mandates for taxes or spending,” a strategy that some say will limit the options to provide a “high-quality” education, should voters support the amendment in November 2022.

David Welch, who underwrote the Vergara v. the State of California and the California Teachers Association litigation in 2012, is among those proposing the Constitutional Right to a High Quality Public Education Act, which they submitted on Thursday to the California attorney general.

Once the initiative receives a title and summary, backers would begin gathering signatures for what would likely be a new front in the battle between the 310,000 member California Teachers Association and wealthy school reform advocates who want to again pursue changes through the courts that they’ve been unable to persuade a union-friendly Legislature to make. Mike Trujillo, spokesperson for the initiative, said the backers are confident they will have funding for a successful campaign.

Next year’s election is expected to be expensive and contentious. Advocates of school vouchers also have proposed two initiatives that are awaiting the approval of the attorney general to start gathering signatures.  They would give parents funding to attend the private or public school of their choice. (Go here and here to read them.) The CTA spent tens of millions of dollars to handily defeat the last voucher initiative, in 2000.

The current wording of the Constitution guarantees Californians only a “free public education.” The Legislature and the courts would have to define what constitutes “high quality.” But adding that phrase as a constitutional right would “finally empower public school parents with a seat at the table” to advocate for students, the proponents said in a statement preceding the amendment.

The new wording would assert that any law, regulation, policy or official action that “does not put the interests of students first” shall be deemed to interfere with a right to a high-quality education.

Other backers of the initiative include former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Ben Austin, founder of the activist parent group Parent Revolution; both challenged laws limiting school choice, and, like Welch, tangled with the California Teachers Union over teachers’ seniority protections governing layoffs, dismissals and due-process rights. Yolie Flores Aguilar, a former Los Angeles Unified board member and now secretary of the board of the advocacy group Education Trust is also a supporter. Columbia University Law School professor James Liebman helped draft the initiative, Trujillo said.

In their preamble to the amendment, proponents blame “politicians and bureaucrats” for adopting and defending policies that work against students’ interests. As examples, they cite “forcing children to attend low-quality schools,” redirecting state Local Control Funding Formula funds to cover general costs and away from intended underserved students, and “retaining consistently low-performing employees.”

Second front over tenure protections

The latter issue was at the heart of the Vergara lawsuit, which argued that the lack of an effective teacher evaluation system, combined with seniority rights that failed to protect effective new teachers from layoffs, and granting due-process protections or tenure after less than two years, harmed students, especially those in low-income, under-resourced schools.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu sided with the plaintiffs – nine students in five school districts and Students Matter, the organization that Welch founded. The evidence of “the effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience,” he wrote in a 2014 decision.

But two years later, three judges on a Court of Appeal in Los Angeles unanimously overturned the decision, writing that the plaintiffs didn’t establish “that the statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students.”

“With no proper showing of a constitutional violation, the court is without power to strike down the challenged statutes,” the decision stated.

Welch and the draft initiative’s supporters assume that adding the “high-quality” standard to the constitution would empower parents to challenge the status quo and force school boards and legislators to question the impact of laws and regulations on students. Judges would apply a higher standard when deciding whether union contracts and other laws interfered with children’s right to an education.

“They would be forced to ask, ‘Why are more inexperienced teachers in low-income schools? Why is one school fully funded and the school down the street has tumbleweeds?’” Trujillo said.

One week after the ruling on Vergara, a divided Court of Appeal in San Francisco used the same logic in ruling that the state Constitution does not guarantee a minimally funded quality education to children in California.  The ruling applied to two similar lawsuits filed during the depths of the recession, when the Legislature was making big cuts to education: Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California, filed by Public Advocates on behalf of five nonprofits serving low-income, minority families; and Robles-Wong et al. v. State of California, by the organizations representing school boards and school administrators, the state PTA and CTA, together with Stanford law professor William Koski, representing low-income children.

“As much as I can appreciate the plaintiffs’ frustration and dissatisfaction with the overall adequacy of California’s public schools,” wrote Associate Justice Peter Siggins in a concurrent opinion, “I cannot agree” that the constitution provides a right to “command the state to fund schools at some qualitative level.”

Welch and the other initiative proponents, however, disagree that a high-quality public education should apply to raising more money for public education. On the contrary, their amendment would add a caveat: The remedies for enforcing a high-quality education should be limited to invalidating laws, policies and regulations. They “shall not include new mandates for taxes or spending.”

That disturbs Koski, a professor of law and professor of education at Stanford Law School and Stanford Graduate School of Education. “At first blush, the initiative looks promising. Who could be against a high-quality education?” he wrote in an email. “But any right is only as good as its remedy. The ‘right’ to a high quality education created by this initiative may not be realized because the remedy is so limited. It only allows children, families and their communities to attack educational laws, policies and regulations, but explicitly prohibits them from seeking funding to improve their schools.”

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  1. Marykate 2 days ago2 days ago

    Review the statistics: In California, pre-pandemic 32% of 4th graders met the criteria for reading, 19% of Hispanics could read at their grade level. Why do graduates need remedial classes in Junior College? The numbers don’t lie, these kids do not have chance at this level. Go for it!

  2. Margaret Brynda 2 months ago2 months ago

    Who is determining what the definition of a high quality education is? Hasn’t the teaching profession been attacked enough?

  3. Seth 2 months ago2 months ago

    I did not read true details of what is in the proposition. High quality is too vague. Districts cannot force teachers to transfer out of a low performing school if they wish. It is draining to teach in a poor, urban area where there is little parent support and so many needs. Teachers would simply leave districts that would not allow transfers to where a teacher would like to teach in a district.

  4. Mary Gill 2 months ago2 months ago

    The initiative process at its worst: well-intentioned and deeply flawed. Who will define ‘high quality’ and by what measures? How will we improve public education if the constitution forbids mandates or taxes for improving quality? Dismantling tenure is not a magic bullet to cure all ills. If this had been passed in the 1980s would we have been prohibited from spending funds to build technical infrastructure in schools? (As one example … Read More

    The initiative process at its worst: well-intentioned and deeply flawed. Who will define ‘high quality’ and by what measures? How will we improve public education if the constitution forbids mandates or taxes for improving quality?

    Dismantling tenure is not a magic bullet to cure all ills. If this had been passed in the 1980s would we have been prohibited from spending funds to build technical infrastructure in schools? (As one example among myriad improvements to quality that require funding.) Don’t sign this; vote no if it’s on the ballot.

  5. Brenda Lebsack 2 months ago2 months ago

    David Welch, I applaud you for working hard to “finally empower public school parents with a seat at the table." It appears parents are being treated as second class citizens, to the point of being accused as "domestic terrorists" if they vehemently oppose Covid-19 restrictions, explicit sexual content in library books, critical race theory, teachings about unlimited gender choices, the normalization of non-monogamous relationships, fluid identities, etc. However, since the Ninth Circuit Supreme … Read More

    David Welch, I applaud you for working hard to “finally empower public school parents with a seat at the table.” It appears parents are being treated as second class citizens, to the point of being accused as “domestic terrorists” if they vehemently oppose Covid-19 restrictions, explicit sexual content in library books, critical race theory, teachings about unlimited gender choices, the normalization of non-monogamous relationships, fluid identities, etc. However, since the Ninth Circuit Supreme Court ruled in 2005 (Fields vs Palmdale School District) that “Parents do not have any constitutional right to prevent a public school from providing its students with whatever information it wishes to provide, sexual or otherwise, when and as the school determines that is is appropriate to do so,” it’s no wonder we’re in the mess we’re in. Maybe it’s time to challenge the status quo and remember who the customer is, because as of right now, California’s Children are property of the state. https://californiapolicycenter.org/californias-children-are-property-of-the-state/

  6. Veteran Teacher 2 months ago2 months ago

    First, I applaud all staffs working together to improve their schools. Teachers supporting other teachers is very powerful. Besides teaching I worked to support struggling teachers. It would have been easy to identify the most effective teachers (10%), those needing support (15-20%) and the worst (10%) as well as promising newcomers who should be retained at all costs. And this goes for ineffective administrators too, who can ruin or enhance the … Read More

    First, I applaud all staffs working together to improve their schools. Teachers supporting other teachers is very powerful.

    Besides teaching I worked to support struggling teachers. It would have been easy to identify the most effective teachers (10%), those needing support (15-20%) and the worst (10%) as well as promising newcomers who should be retained at all costs. And this goes for ineffective administrators too, who can ruin or enhance the school effectiveness.

    I just don’t see how the system can change without market based strategies and changing tenure rules.

  7. CARI EDWARDS 2 months ago2 months ago

    Give students their educational funding and let families decide how their children are educated. School choice will force public schools to do better, they will have to compete for funding. #fundstudents #SchoolChoice

  8. Maya K 2 months ago2 months ago

    On first read, this is seductive especially in light of what California is trying to do with math education and what San Francisco has done to math education for 7 years. San Francisco has outright lied in their claims not just in the saying delaying Algebra 1 to 9th caused magical improvement (It did not. Removing an exit exam in order to be promoted did.). Their claims of increased Advanced Math enrollment falls apart, … Read More

    On first read, this is seductive especially in light of what California is trying to do with math education and what San Francisco has done to math education for 7 years.

    San Francisco has outright lied in their claims not just in the saying delaying Algebra 1 to 9th caused magical improvement (It did not. Removing an exit exam in order to be promoted did.). Their claims of increased Advanced Math enrollment falls apart, too. They are using their compression class, something they call Algebra 2 + Precalculus in their count. However UC doesn’t accept it as advanced math or precalculus (see A-G), because it is missing significant precalculus content.

    This is where we need reform. Tighter regulations on districts from putting erroneous information like this on transcripts and in general.

    This proposal of “quality education” sounds like a win but I think is much too broad and can be used to harm rather than help.

  9. Frances O'Neill Zikmmerman 2 months ago2 months ago

    The proposed initiative as described here may open the door to positive change if it is understood by the electorate, gathers enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and is passed by the voters. It will not be easy to accomplish. Everyone knows California public education is failing the children – how about our Forbes standing at 41 out of 50 states in public education quality and reading proficiency levels well under 50% … Read More

    The proposed initiative as described here may open the door to positive change if it is understood by the electorate, gathers enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and is passed by the voters. It will not be easy to accomplish. Everyone knows California public education is failing the children – how about our Forbes standing at 41 out of 50 states in public education quality and reading proficiency levels well under 50% for kids in grades 3-11 and CTA’s methodical dismantling of standards for any accountability to the public?

    It’s an emergency. Good for any “wealthy school reform advocates” who qualify this measure for the ballot and then publicize it so that voters and politicians understand it’s about California’s future to vote Yes.

    Replies

    • B4S 2 months ago2 months ago

      Defunding public education is a major factor in the poor outcomes for students.

  10. Dan Plonsey 2 months ago2 months ago

    You’ve got to admit: These rich people who want to dismantle public education are hard workers. Too bad that we teachers don’t expend similar the political energy and resourcefulness in collectively supporting policies which would actually improve the lives of our students: e.g., healthcare for all, eradication of poverty, reduction of economic inequality. Instead, all of our energy is directed to fending off one terrible idea after another.

  11. Stephen C Smith 2 months ago2 months ago

    Our proposal The Educational Freedom Act and the other which copied much of our language are not voucher programs. Both create education savings accounts (ESA) which will be funded from the California education budget. They both are constitutional amendments. Ours starts at $14,000 per year and the other starts at $13,000. Ours creates accounts for home school the other does not. There are other significant differences. It does appear that the proposed initiative in … Read More

    Our proposal The Educational Freedom Act and the other which copied much of our language are not voucher programs. Both create education savings accounts (ESA) which will be funded from the California education budget. They both are constitutional amendments. Ours starts at $14,000 per year and the other starts at $13,000. Ours creates accounts for home school the other does not. There are other significant differences. It does appear that the proposed initiative in this article is designed to circumvent both bills and deny parents who are poor and middle class true educational freedom.

  12. Alazan 2 months ago2 months ago

    Can someone please explain to me what is the quality education? There are a lot of people who wants to change education, but these people who no experiences in the education field. If the proponents of that proposition want me to to vote yes, they will have to define what quality education is.

  13. Erik Kengaard 2 months ago2 months ago

    Modifying the constitution with language you could drive a freight train through is not a good idea. Consider the damage in New Jersey from social justice warriors' use of "thorough and efficient education" to waste hundreds of millions of tax dollars and drive per pupil spending to nearly 20K. Consider that Virginia has excellent schools, at per pupil spending of under 14K, thanks to the realistic wording of its constitution, which has foiled the attempts of … Read More

    Modifying the constitution with language you could drive a freight train through is not a good idea. Consider the damage in New Jersey from social justice warriors’ use of “thorough and efficient education” to waste hundreds of millions of tax dollars and drive per pupil spending to nearly 20K.

    Consider that Virginia has excellent schools, at per pupil spending of under 14K, thanks to the realistic wording of its constitution, which has foiled the attempts of the SJWs.

    “… to provide high-quality public education for all students”? Define high quality first.

  14. Dayle Ross 2 months ago2 months ago

    Who is going to define “High Quality”? The parents? The principals- who may or may not like a teacher? Test scores- which we know does not tell accurately what a child knows? So who will make the determination of High Quality?