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LA teachers group offers solutions for a post-Vergara world

Craig Clough | September 19, 2014

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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with Teach Plus Fellows Bootsie Battle-Hold and Kat Czujko

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with Teach Plus Fellows Bootsie Battle-Holt and Kat Czujko. (Photo: Nick Toren for Teach Plus)

While state teacher unions are spending time, energy and money fighting the landmark Vergara v. California ruling through appeal, one group of teachers in Los Angeles is helping shape what a post-Vergara world could look like.

In a presentation yesterday at the California Community Foundation, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined L.A.-based teaching policy fellows with the national group, Teach Plus, in presenting ideas for change should the appeal fail.

In a ruling that landed like a bomb on the educational landscape, California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down five statutes governing teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs, concluding that they violate the state constitution by denying students access to a quality public education. If the ruling stands, the state legislature has to rewrite the laws, and yesterday’s event was designed as a roadmap.

As the key speaker, Villaraigosa threw his support behind the Vergara ruling —  and the group’s ideas to accommodate it.

“When you take extreme positions, like tenure, that says you can’t ever fire anybody… that’s extreme,” he said. “The other extreme is that we shouldn’t have teacher unions and due process. But what Vergara said was, this is uberdue process; this is way beyond.”

Teach Plus works to elevate the influence of teachers in policy discussions, and yesterday’s forum “is an example of that,” said John Lee, executive director of Teach Plus Los Angeles, referring to 10 Teach Plus fellows, all of them LA classroom teachers, who spent the summer researching Vergara.

The researchers compiled their findings in a policy brief, “Valuing Performance and Honoring Experience: Teacher Solutions for a Post-Vergara Profession.”

First up was tenure, which currently gives teachers extensive due process rights after 18 months. California is only one of five states that awards tenure within two years, according to the Teach Plus presentation.

Teach Plus recommends one short-term and three long-term solutions:

  • Extend to four years the time for a teacher to gain “permanent status”; require three consecutive years of evaluations demonstrating effective teaching for a teacher to earn “permanent status.”
  • Base tenure decisions solely on performance.
  • Require schools to provide evidence of support for teachers who receive an unsatisfactory evaluation if those teachers continue their employment.

Kat Czujko, a teacher at Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights, helped write the tenure section.

“We want tenure to be a meaningful achievement,” she told LA School Report. “I feel like I got tenure just for showing up. We want tenure to be a case for teachers to showcase their talents and prove that they are effective educators in the classroom.”

On the issue of dismissal, the brief said among 275,000 teachers statewide, only 2.2 teachers, on average, are dismissed each year for unsatisfactory performance, which amounts to just 0.0008 percent of all teachers in the state.

The Teach Plus brief recommends these changes:

  • Improve and expand programs that support teachers, particularly those that target new and struggling teachers.
  • Connect teacher evaluation to the dismissal process.
  • Improve the Commission for Professional Competence hearing process.

Andrea Burke, a teacher at Dr. Owen Lloyd Knox Elementary School in south Los Angeles who helped write the dismissal section, said she had received some blowback from other teachers for participating with Teach Plus in preparing the new ideas.

“There was a lot of hesitation, I will admit,” she said. “They have a hard time understanding how I could get behind something that’s going to wipe out tenure and get rid of teachers. And I had to tell them I’m actually a teacher sitting across from them at the lunch table, that potentially could have a voice in legislation that would be a part of something that affects all of us. And they were like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think of it like that.’ ”

The final part of the presentation regarded layoffs under the “Last-In, First-Out” rule, which requires newer teachers to go first when cuts are required. The Teach Plus brief said: “Instead of using a seniority-based process for layoffs, we recommend an approach that accounts for teacher effectiveness and uses seniority as a secondary criterion.”

Lisa Blackwell, a teacher at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, who co-wrote the layoff section, said, layoff decisions “need to be based on effectiveness, but we also need to recognize that if you’ve been teaching a long time, you probably are better at it than the earlier teachers. So that’s what we were shooting for, the balance in-between.”

During a panel discussion after the presentations, Villaraigosa said, “The only reason I got behind Vergara was because of the extremism on the other end. I can live with this. This is rational. I say it everywhere I go. I could be for some seniority, I could be for some tenure. I just can’t be for uber seniority and tenure. Performance has to count for something.”

The next step? Teach Plus officials said they intend to spread the findings throughout the state and get them to leading state lawmakers.

“I know that we are looking at visiting legislatures, to go and talk to them,” Blackwell said. “There are definitely next steps in place.”

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