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The New Civil Rights Movement(s)

In 2012, Condoleezza Rice referred to school choice as “the civil rights struggle of our day.” Everyone agreed. Well, except Diane Ravitch, but that’s to be expected.

What school choicers didn’t know is that there were contenders for the title.

For instance, the LGBT lobby has already penned itself as “the new civil rights,” and it amazes me how informed the typical American is about LGBT issues compared to the state of American education, when less than 4% of Americans are LGBT compared to 88% who graduated from a public school. If the title of “civil rights movement of our day” came down to a popularity contest, LGBT is beating the hell out of education reform.

An aggressive and viral PR campaign is to thank for this. LGBT victories, particularly in the courtroom, have been trumpeted since the Matthew Shepard incident in 1998 completely recalibrated America’s threshold for hate. A few years ago, gay marriage dominated popular culture in a way that few political issues (e.g. abortion, terrorism, etc.) are able to do. Suddenly, everyone had a lot of gay friends, and Facebook profiles turned red in the wake of a brilliant HRC social media push.

This isn’t to say that nothing was happening on the ed reform front, just that nobody cared.

In fact, the last decade has been hugely productive for charter schools. A vast majority of charter school laws across the country were initially passed in the 1990s, but most of them were weak and ineffective. It wasn’t until the 2000s that charter schools became a viable educational alternative in multiple states, more than tripling in number across the nation in just ten years. Over the same period, the charter school share of public school enrollment increased from 0.7% to 4.2%. The growth continued, and in a single year (school years 2010-11 to 2011-12) the number of students enrolled in charter schools increased from 1.8 million to 2.1 million.

This new membership is recycling energy back into the legal front. For example, we just scored a landmark courtroom victory in June, Vergara v. California, which was one of the most significant blows to tenure law in American history. You know it’s good because the socialists at DailyKos hate it.

But guess what, Vergara doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet. Meanwhile, Prop 8’s wiki article is languishing there with 243 citations..

It’s a shame more people don’t know about Vergara v. California, because it was a pretty audacious lawsuit. California tenure law is historically very difficult to navigate. California unions are the 6th strongest in the country, and democrats hold a comfortable majority of congressional seats at the U.S. and state levels. This is the state that gave us Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein in 1992 and never took them back. So, attacking such a closely guarded entitlement structure as teacher tenure would normally be a lost cause.

The problem with tenure is that it’s fundamentally unfair and downright stupid. Liberals will be quick to tell you that teacher salaries are declining, and following the gradual climb to an all-time high (nat’l avg: $58,925) in 2009-10, they have been. But teacher salaries aren’t the issue here, just a distraction. I’m not against higher teacher salaries, I’m against higher salaries for anyone based on seniority instead of performance. I’m also against the practice of firing younger teachers just because they’re not tenured (i.e. last-in, first-out – LIFO). Young teachers comprise the bulk of talent in challenging American classrooms (just ask anyone who has worked for Teach for America), and firing them disproportionately hurts the most at-risk students. Ironically, cheap first-year talent is also the best way to slash school budgets, since tenured, unionized teachers in a place like New Jersey can make over $100,000 a year, and average salaries in Taxachusetts were $73k+ in 2013.

But it was the student impact issue that was at play in Vergara, and that’s why we won. California tenure laws previously forced out young teachers in the most challenging classrooms, meaning that the kids who needed reliable, consistent educators in their life the most were losing them annually. This practice is now illegal, and though the unions plan to appeal the case “on behalf of the students” (pardon me while I die laughing), Judge Treu’s decision was pretty clear on the law.

Legislative and judicial productivity is a good indicator of a movement’s success, especially this one. In fact, legal productivity defines a “movement” in every sense of the word. We can blog all day about an important topic, but only laws can make Americans do things they don’t want to do. In the history of Civil America, Rights didn’t even follow War until a series of court cases in the 1950s laid the framework for the laws that activists would leverage a decade later, to great effect.

Will it take a decade for tenure to disappear, or for school districts and boards of education to finally start funding charter schools equally? Was Condi Rice wrong in 2012? What will it take for Americans to take education reform as seriously as they take LGBT issues?

After all, this is about our kids, and that’s why education reform is as much a civil issue as LGBT rights. Students have rights, as cited in Vergara, and at 20.4% of the American population, you could say that K-12ers represent a formidable minority group that deserves some attention.

Sadly, Americans are too easily sidetracked by Big Media’s front-page crisis or social media’s latest trending infographic, which is why school choice is about as popular a political topic as income tax revision or transportation infrastructure. Given the fairly civil aura of universal health care, the recent push for fair and equal employee compensation, and an expanding welfare state, school choice as a civil rights movement is quickly falling behind.

Still, it will be cool to see education reform go viral one day. I might actually be able to start doing this full time and not on my lunch breaks.



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