Type “Vergara” into any search engine – as I was repeatedly this morning – and you’re likely not to find what I was looking for. Instead, you’ll find supermodel and actress Sofia Vergara – best known for her role in the sitcom Modern Family. An immigrant, and before she was famous, a single-mother in her early twenties, “Vergara is certainly the embodiment of [the] American dream,” notes one magazine – famed not just for her beauty, but her talent and determination to overcome hardship.
Another Los Angeles based Vergara – Beatriz – is who I was actually looking for. And her story, too, is about the American Dream; while this story will be on the cover of newspapers and is already trending on Twitter, it’s not a pretty. There is no glitter, no glamour, no red carpets – rather, it’s about pink slips and broken dreams.
Beatriz Vergara (along with the other student plaintiffs) filed and won a lawsuit against the State of California and the California Teachers Association claiming that teacher tenure and other protections (around dismissal and seniority) are unconstitutional. Invoking the seminal Brown Vs. The Board of Education case, Judge Rolf Treu of the Los Angeles Superior Court released a decision June 10, finding that California students – especially in poor and minority schools – are deprived of their right to an equal education, and thus, an equal opportunity to achieve the American Dream. Indeed, according to Politico, Treu “adopt [ed] the language and legal framework of the civil rights movement” delivering his verdict as part of the long march to justice.
Just how did dismantling worker rights become part of Civil Rights? How did teachers – those like my wife and myself, who have devoted their lives to working with children and adults in public schools – become their greatest enemy?
The answer, in part, has to do with the other Vergara – Sophia. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let’s go back to the late 1990s, when Diane Ravitch, a distinguished professor of education history and reformed “reformer” who blew the whistle on the corporate takeover of public education in her best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, worked at the Manhattan Institute, a New York based conservative think tank. They were having difficulty selling the public on vouchers, and realized that their policies needed to be reframed. Because “vouchers” didn’t have popular support, they decided to throw their weight behind charter schools, “because they achieved almost the same result as vouchers–a transfer of government dollars from government to private control.” But changing from “vouchers” to “charters”, by itself, wasn’t enough. Nobody really knew about charters, then, nor could they personally relate to the sterile economic theories and language which informed their philosophies.
And therein, a new strategy was born – co-opting progressive language to sell privatized education policies to the public.
“There was explicit discussion about the importance of presenting the charter idea as a way to save poor minority children. In a city and state that was consistently liberal, that was a smart strategy,” Ravitch recalled in an email. Conservative think-think American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess has noticed these strategies used throughout the country, observing that “the case for school choice was thus not argued in terms of efficiency or deregulation, but instead presented as a moral imperative — an obligation to give poor, black inner-city parents the kinds of educational choices taken for granted by suburban home owners.” Indeed, the heart-wrenching propaganda documentary Waiting for Superman relies on this “social justice” narrative, while selling the audience on charters, and against unions, and teacher tenure. Today, co-opting liberal language, values and morals appealing to “social justice,” “civil rights,” and “equality” has become standard. Ravitch, herself a life-long Democrat who become such a reformer, lured in by similar promises, concludes: “In retrospect, it seems strange that so many liberals bought an idea that emanated from conservative think tanks and conservative thinkers.”
In much the same way that vouchers and charters have been sold via civil rights language, so too was Vergara v. California argued in court and marketed to the public as a moral imperative, with a solidly social justice lexicon, composing a compelling narrative which is attractive to liberals, while at the same time, appealing to economic conservatives who have long worked to abolish teacher tenure.
Like Sofia Vergara, the Beatriz Vergara case has massive cross-over appeal – and, the most powerful PR team money can buy. Indeed, Vergara is a significant milestone in the corporate reform effort, one that demonstrates that the multi-million dollar marketing campaign to rebrand privatization of public education as part of a larger civil rights movement has worked.
It’s no longer funny when Mitt Romney, or another plutocrat, snidely claims “education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” and blames unions and poor teachers for creating inequality (which he did, right after calling half of America lazy). No, today it’s now common sense to blame teachers for inequality in our schools – and, if Vergara is upheld, a matter of law.
Beyond carrying the burden for the very real inequality in our schools, teachers have now been legally pit in opposition to students and parents – this is the most concerning outcome of Vergara. Corporate reformers – StudentsFirst, most notably – have worked hard (and successfully) to convince the public that teachers and students are at odds – that the rights and interests of teachers are fundamentally in conflict with those they serve. Vergara legitimizes this false division between teachers and the community, straining critical relationships needed to support children – especially in those communities facing the worst learning (and living) conditions.
More broadly, Vergara situates teachers outside of the fight for social justice – indeed, it describes us as barriers to equaility, on par with racial segregation. Yes, yes, I know the verdict is focused on “grossly negligent teachers,” whom I too don’t want teaching my students, nor my two-year old son, who will attend public school. But with the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, the poor quality of evaluation based on that testing, the increasing top-down management styles that dismiss teacher opinion, the constant drum of the “failing schools,” and the generally hostile attitude towards public workers, it’s not hard to feel that we’re all targeted – that any of us could be a “bad teacher.”
In the 1990s, it was just conservative think tanks on the edges of the debate that would invoke the bad teacher boogeyman – now, the Executive Branch of a “liberal” administration agrees: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hailed the verdict a victory, employing the same civil rights framing he has used in selling President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. In other words, Vergara doesn’t just represent the point of view of billionaire businessmen, conservative scholars, nor an isolated, “activist judge” – it now reflects the perspective of my Department of Education, and the President himself, who now believe that “bad teachers” are the root of our educational challenges, rather than the wide-spread poverty and systemic racism which the original civil rights leaders fought against, and which still exist today.
As angry and frightened as teachers are of more scapegoating, we must refuse to be cast as villains in a very well produced fictional drama staged by the elites, one that distracts us from looking at the very real causes of inequality of opportunity, of broken dreams, and lost chances. The Vergara verdict must push teachers to make stars of themselves, by reclaiming their role as public servants working on behalf of social justice, working on behalf of students, working on behalf of communities and the country for the public good, working towards civil rights, and better opportunities for all students – or, it will signal the concluding act in public education, and a shot at the American Dream for all students.
[i] This interview with Ravitch was published in my two-year study of corporate media coverage on education reform. Further citations can be found there, as well. Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.