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Deasy at USC: Vergara is the next big civil rights case

Vanessa Romo | April 1, 2014

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John Deasy, with fellow panelist, Susan Estrich

John Deasy, with fellow panelist, Susan Estrich

More than two months ago LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy took the stand as the first witness for the plaintiffs in Vergara v California, a lawsuit challenging teacher protections. He testified for three days, laying the foundation of their overall case.

Now that the trial has ended, the head of the largest school district in the state continues to make his case to the public, positioning Vergara as a civil rights issue.

Speaking yesterday on a panel called “Rights, Writs and Rulings: Where does a student go for redress?” sponsored by the USC Rossier School of Education, Deasy characterized the Vergara trial as the next point on the civil rights continuum seeking to strike down segregation in public schools: A major focus of the plaintiffs’ case is that low-income and minority students are more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than children from more affluent families.

He spoke at length about Plessy v Ferguson and Brown v Board of Education, both historic cases that challenged the Fourteenth Amendment. And Deasy drew parallels between more the recent public education battles of Williams v California, Serrano v Priest, and Butt v California, as well as the peaceful protests lead by African-American students in the 1960s.

Deasy said a group of well-dressed black students sitting at a segregated Woolworth’s counter in Greenboro, North Carolina decades ago, politely asking to be served is not unlike a group of nine California students asking for a better education today.

“I would like a cup of coffee. I want to go to a good school,” he said. “We are still struggling some 60 years later to enact the promise of Brown v Board of Education. I am troubled how today we can witness such unequal, non-protected classes of youth at a single institution called public education. Our work is not done.”

It is not the first time Deasy has elevated disparities in public education to status of a civil rights issue. It was part of his rationale for LA Unified’s push to get iPads in the hands of every district student.

But the arguments in Vergara, which equate a case seeking to strike down five laws that govern teacher seniority, dismissal and tenure to a battle with institutional racism, is upsetting to people on the other side of the issues, as if opponents of Vergara are implicitly racists or bigots for supporting the existing laws or advocating a different path toward improving educational outcomes.

That includes those who support the two-year probationary period for tenure, the state’s last in, first out layoff policies, and the state’s dismissal process.

“I know about the inequities,” said Lisa Alva, a teacher at Roosevelt High School in east LA, which she describes as “notably needy.”

Throughout Deasy’s speech she said, she was trying “really hard” to reconcile his lofty ideas with the reality of what is happening in schools everyday.

“Deasy says this case is not about striking down teacher rights, that it’s about student rights, but the two are not mutually exclusive.” she said. “Help us do a better job. Give us the resources and the support we need.”

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