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Commentary: Parents want legislature to act on teacher tenure

LA School Report | June 24, 2016

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SpeakUP-Logo-horizontalBy Jenny Hontz

 When LA School Report reported this week that 181 LAUSD staffers are currently being paid to sit around and do nothing while they are investigated for alleged misconduct, costing the district $15 million a year, school board members expressed surprise.

The numbers are staggering, but it should be no surprise to anyone that this is happening. This so-called “teachers jail” system is the result of terribly flawed teacher tenure and dismissal laws that students and parents have been trying to fix for years in court and in the state legislature – so far to no avail.

In surveying our Speak UP members, 92 percent of parents said that “excellent teachers” were “very important” in their choice of a school – more than any other factor. 

But current state law and union contracts make it very difficult for districts like LAUSD to ensure that all students have effective teachers in every classroom. Unionized public school teachers currently receive lifetime job tenure after just 18 months, often with no meaningful performance review.

And once teachers receive tenure, it can take almost a decade and up to $500,000 to dismiss an ineffective teacher – rendering the process so costly and time consuming that districts like LAUSD rarely even bother to try.

That’s why LAUSD opted to pay Mark Berndt $40,000 to quit his teaching job at Miramonte Elementary School five years ago, despite photographic evidence that he spoon-fed semen to his students, blindfolded them and placed cockroaches on their faces.

These flawed laws also contributed to a level of bureaucratic indifference that led LAUSD to ignore repeated warnings of teacher sexual abuse, an atrocity that has now cost LAUSD $300 million over the past four years in sex abuse settlements.

The California Supreme Court will decide this summer whether to take up an appeal by nine students in the historic Vergara vs. California case challenging our unusually protective teacher tenure laws, as well as a seniority-based layoff system that often keeps ineffective teachers in district classrooms while letting more talented but less senior teachers go.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in 2014 that the state statutes were unconstitutional, writing that it “shocks the conscience” that low-income and minority kids were so often saddled with the most ineffective teachers. The ruling was overturned on appeal in April after facing intense opposition from the state’s teachers unions, including the California Teachers Association.

We hope the state’s highest court will take up the case and rule in favor of the students, but regardless of what happens in court, the state legislature has the ultimate responsibility to fix a broken system and ensure that every child has an effective teacher in the classroom.

So far the state legislature, which appears to be in the pocket of CTA, has been unwilling to make the necessary changes. The latest disappointment came from this week’s gutting of a once-promising bill, AB 934, from Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) that originally would have reformed the teacher tenure and dismissal process to the benefit of both teachers and students.

One week before the bill was slated for a vote in the Senate Education Committee, however, the bill was stripped of several key provisions, including a requirement that teacher tenure be based partly on performance evaluations rather than just length of service. Also taken out of the bill was a provision to balance teacher performance with seniority when making layoff decisions, and a new streamlined dismissal process for ineffective teachers.

Bonilla told Speak UP that she amended the bill because the Senate Education Committee told her it was “too big, too complex” and would not make it through committee unless changed. Bonilla said she faced “intense opposition” from CTA, which made it its No. 1 bill to kill this year. “They will oppose anything going down this path,” she said. “It’s extremely difficult.”

She pointed out that her amended bill would still extend the probationary period before teachers receive tenure from two to three years and would at least give districts the ability to negotiate a streamlined dismissal process through collective bargaining with local teachers unions.

“Of course, it’s not everything I wanted,” Bonilla said, although she believes it is still a “step forward” from where we are now. “It’s certainly better than nothing.”

The changes, however, prompted Students Matter, the organization supporting the student plaintiffs in the Vergara trial, to withdraw its support for the bill, calling it “a mere shell of its former self.”

It’s now more important than ever that the California Supreme Court step in and require the legislature to fix this broken system. We have seen the grip CTA has on the legislature and how hard it is to make meaningful change. It took multiple failed legislative attempts to streamline the process for dismissing teachers accused of egregious crimes such as sex abuse and drug dealing. (Judging from the ranks of the accused still sitting in teacher jail, it was clearly not streamlined enough.)

 It’s still nearly impossible to dismiss a teacher who is grossly ineffective but not a criminal. The process is so arduous that LAUSD often transfers ineffective teachers to lower-income schools in a process called the Dance of the Lemons.

That’s what happened to a teacher at Walgrove Elementary that parents claimed reeked of alcohol on the job. He wound up moving from the West Side to a school with a majority low-income, minority student population rather than getting dismissed.

Our kids deserve better than this. We encourage all Speak UP members and concerned parents to contact members of the Senate Education Committee and urge them to restore key provisions in the May 17 version of AB 934 that were just removed.

It’s especially crucial to contact the committee chair, Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and the ranking Republican, Bob Huff (R-Brea). You can find all the committee members and links to their contacts here and your own state representatives here.

It’s time the state legislature puts the interests of our children first. Parents are watching, and we want real action on this issue. Unfortunately, despite good intentions, Bonilla’s bill no longer goes far enough.

Jenny Hontz is a founding member of Speak UP, a grassroots organization helping California parents advocate for excellent, equitable education in their schools, communities and at the ballot box.

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