Earlier this month, a judge in Los Angeles issued one of the most significant legal decisions in decades -- affirming the right of all children in California to receive an equal education.

While this case might be debated in the courts for several years, it offers a critical opportunity we must seize right now to craft new policies that put students and their needs first while also supporting the people who are among their most important advocates, their teachers.

We can do this.

In Vergara v. California, a case that challenged whether certain teacher hiring and dismissal policies undermined equal opportunity in public education for poor and minority students, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled decisively.

The decision brought much-needed attention to what equity and opportunity in education truly mean. Notably, the case was tried in the very room that was formerly presided over by both former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Wright, who oversaw Serrano v. Priest, a historic case on school financing.

While this connection was coincidental, the legal underpinnings of Brown, Serrano and other historic education equity cases are not. They are a strong reminder that achieving equity and fighting for opportunity are both an ongoing struggle and a living, breathing goal. This couldn't be more true than in education.


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I strongly support the Vergara plaintiffs and the judge's decision in this case.

I will soon retire after serving for 40 years in Congress, including four decades on the House education and labor committee, where I became widely respected for my legislation and advocacy on behalf of unions and on behalf of children.

A lot has changed in schools during my tenure, but one thing has remained constant: Quality teaching matters. In fact, it matters significantly more than any other factor in education. This was one of the few points of agreement between the Vergara plaintiffs and defendants, and the decision underscored the clear links between students' right to a quality education and the teacher in front of their classroom.

A national conversation currently is underway about how we will structure standards and assessments, craft funding formulas, and build accountability structures for the next generation of educators and students. We need to invest in reforms because California and much of the country still are operating under outdated teacher policies and supporting teacher education programs that haven't evolved since I entered Congress. Our future success depends on our ability to figure out how to attract the best and brightest to teaching, and how to put the most effective teachers in front of the students who need them most.

It is time for the next generation of teacher policies. The first step must be to create a working environment that fits today's professionals. Teachers must be provided with the opportunity to be creative and respond to the needs and learning styles of their students. The system must recognize their talents and efforts and provide them with targeted support, including guidance from mentor teachers. Teachers should be given time to collaborate, as well as be offered growth and leadership opportunities in their schools and districts. Teachers also need fair evaluation systems and rights at work that allow them to continue to grow, while staying focused on whether students are learning.

Educator-preparation programs must be part of our next-generation approach. Teacher education must prepare teachers for the schools they are entering today and work in partnership with school districts. Prep programs must have high standards for who enters and graduates from their programs. And states must establish higher standards for who is allowed to enter the teaching profession.

Vergara provides the opportunity for this vital evolution. This is not the time for playing politics or for quick legislative patches. Now is the time for a thoughtful, deliberative process that first asks what is in the best interest of students, and then develops policies with the needs of our children in mind.

In his decision, Judge Treu pointed to the state's responsibility to protect children's rights to constitutionally mandated equal educational opportunities. That standard is not just the promise of Brown, Serrano and now Vergara. It is the established framework for lawmakers in crafting education policy. Anything short of that standard will turn the conversation away from the classroom and back to the courtroom.

The policies challenged in Vergara clearly were not supporting students, as evidenced by student achievement in the schools most adversely affected, as well as in California as a whole. Nor do these policies really enable teachers to be as effective as possible. It is time for all stakeholders to design new teacher policies that guarantee children their right to an equal education and that will enable teachers to be the highly effective professionals they desire to be and that we so desperately need.

George Miller is the senior Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.