Teacher-tenure reform shaping up as big education fight this year
The issue involves the contentious matter of teacher job protections, which the union says are necessary to counter unfair and politically motivated firings. Education reformers believe such protections – tenure, a seniority-based layoff system, and the long and costly dismissal statutes – deprive some students of a quality education.
The main dismissal-related measure this year is Assembly Bill 1220, which extends the time period before teachers are eligible for tenure, at which point they can only be fired for certain types of misbehavior. The bill would extend the probationary period to three years for districts with more than 250 students and mandates an individualized improvement plan for teachers in their third year.
Currently, teachers are eligible for tenure after just two years, and they must be told whether they will receive tenure after only 18 months. That forces school districts to make tenure decisions rather quickly. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and other backers argue that “districts would make wiser hiring decisions with more time,” according to EdSource, which recently analyzed 10 education-related bills that have passed the Assembly or Senate but still must be approved by the other house.
This is the latest bill that responds to issues raised in a much-publicized California legal tussle. In the Vergara case, nine public-school students filed suit against the State of California and the California Teachers’ Association claiming these policies violate the California Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. As Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu explained in his June 2014 decision, the plaintiffs argued that these protections “result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students.”
Treu agreed with the plaintiffs. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience,” the judge ruled as he tossed out as unconstitutional teacher tenure and other job protections, including the “last in, first out” seniority system under which younger teachers are the first to go whenever districts must implement layoffs. The appeals court overturned the ruling in 2016, pinning most of the problems on poor decisions by the school district rather than the job-protection statutes.
Later that year, the state Supreme Court declined to review the case on a 4-3 vote, thus letting the appeals court’s decision stand. But the controversy didn’t subside. In direct response to the appeal court ruling, reformers introduced Assembly Bill 934 last year to extend the tenure process to three years and allow districts to negotiate an “alternative teacher dismissal process,” according to the bill analysis. The CTA opposed the bill, which died in committee.
The union likewise opposes this year’s bill. “AB1220 is the wrong solution to support good teaching and learning, and it’s disappointing that leaders in the Assembly refused to work with educators to improve the bill,” said CTA President Eric Heins in a June 2 statement. “Forty-six other states provide due process rights to teachers on day one. California is taking a step back by adding another year without any rights for our newest educators.”
Reformers argue that including new rights for probationary teachers from “day one” would make it even harder to get rid of those teachers who don’t make the grade. They note that 42 other states have probationary periods ranging from three to five years.
“California has one of the shortest times for a teacher to demonstrate classroom readiness and achieve permanent status,” according to a statement from Weber’s office. “A statewide survey of 506 teachers in traditional California schools found that 85 percent of teachers think that tenure decisions should be made after at least three years of classroom instruction. Only 15 percent of teachers found California’s current two-year timeline was sufficient.”
Backers of extending the probationary period point to statistics raised in Treu’s decision. The judge pointed to testimony suggesting that 1 to 3 percent of California public-school teachers are “grossly ineffective,” which amounts to 2,750 to 8,250 such teachers statewide. That’s a large enough number to have “a direct, real, appreciable and negative impact on a significant number of California students,” he wrote.
While AB1220 will be heard July 12 in the Senate Education Committee, another high-profile education bill this year has reformers concerned. It would ban for-profit charter schools, beginning in 2019. Backers argue that it’s a misuse of tax dollars to fund charters that have the goal of maximizing profits. Opponents argue the bill is part of a broader attack on charter schools and note that for-profit online charters provide needed services for a small segment of students with special needs or who are bullied in traditional schools.
There are other education measures that are still alive in the Legislature. As EdSource explained, they would “require more accounting for spending under the Local Control Funding Formula, mandate a later start time for middle and high schools and further restrict student suspensions.” But the teacher tenure and for-profit charter measures promise to be the most contentious matters for this legislative session, and the ones most important to track.
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