(S.F. Examiner file photo)

The California Department of Education says you have a right to a bad education

Straight from the “careful how you defend yourself” file is this insight from the California Department of Education, which recently defended itself from allegations that our kids are receiving a substandard education by arguing that, “There is no constitutional right to a ‘meaningful’ education.”

In May, lawyers representing eight children sued the state of California, the California Department of Education and several school districts. The plaintiffs in Vergara v. State of California claim grossly unfit teachers persist in our schools because state law gives tenured teachers extraordinary job protections, and districts have to make decisions about whether to award tenure when teachers have spent less than 18 months on the job. Having these teachers, according to the plaintiffs, deprives certain students of their constitutional right to an education.

The constitutional right to an education requires more than a brick-and-mortar schoolhouse, plaintiffs say.

Students have a right to a “meaningful education” that allows them “basic tools necessary to compete in the economic marketplace or to participate as a citizen in our democracy.” Severely restricting the ability to discipline or terminate ineffective teachers violates this right.

In response, the state tried to get the case thrown out for several reasons, including the grounds that a “meaningful education” is too vague to define. But instead of stopping there or saying all our kids do receive a meaningful education, it made this depressing claim in a public document: “the constitution guarantees only ‘equality of educational opportunity, but no minimum level.’” As long as it’s equally bad, there’s no problem.

The judge declined to dismiss the case and the plaintiffs will now demand to see documents such as teacher evaluations, tenure decisions and student performance reviews. What the plaintiffs find will provide us all with a meaningful education about our public schools.

Would voters give up their initiative powers?

While Democrats have been coy about what they plan to do with a supermajority in Sacramento, one change that state Senate President Pro Tem Darryl Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has admitted he wants to see is initiative reform.
Specifically, he wants to give the Legislature a chance to negotiate with backers of an initiative before signatures are gathered, and he also wants to allow the Legislature to amend initiatives after several years without going back to voters.

While he may have the votes to put reform on the ballot, whether voters will go for it is uncertain.

“On the one hand, people get upset because they believe the Legislature is foisting their reasonability on voters,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “But on the other, they’re very suspicious of anyone who wants to take this power away from them. The challenge for Steinberg and his allies is to craft a reform package that voters don’t feel takes away that power.”

Having an end-run around the poorly regarded Legislature is the main reason for keeping an initiative process.

Ours is not a perfect system, but asking the voters to allow more legislative
involvement will be a tough sell.

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