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Teacher tenure bill defeated in committee

Sarah Favot | June 29, 2016

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Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. (courtesy)

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. (courtesy)

State lawmakers on Wednesday once again failed to amend teacher tenure laws, this time rejecting a bill that would have extended the probationary period from two to three years — even after the bill was stripped of its boldest language.

The bill, AB 934, sponsored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, was defeated 5-2, with two senators abstaining, in the state Senate Education Committee. It drew the opposition of powerful teachers unions — the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers — and education reformers, two sides that seldom agree.

The teachers unions said the bill went too far in taking away teachers’ due process rights, while the reform advocates said the bill didn’t go far enough in making teacher tenure an earned benchmark.

The bill was conceived to address some of the concerns about the state of education in California that were raised in the landmark lawsuit Vergara v. California, which was overturned on appeal in April, and to bring about “the necessary and overdue changes that must be addressed within our education system,” a statement from Bonilla’s office said.

“It is frustrating when two opposing sides are not only unwilling to compromise, but are vehemently reluctant to work together to achieve the mutual goal of providing a high quality education for all California students,” Bonilla said in the statement.

Students Matter, which filed the Vergara lawsuit on behalf of nine students, initially had supported the bill, but the version that was voted on by the committee was heavily amended and Students Matter withdrew its support last week.

Ben Austin, the group’s policy and advocacy director, called the bill “watered down and gutted beyond recognition.”

The issue of teacher tenure was the crux of the Vergara lawsuit. Plaintiff attorneys argued that teacher protection laws perpetuate a cycle of keeping ineffective teachers in low-income classrooms.

Bonilla, a former high school English teacher, said the amendments to the bill, AB 934, were needed to give it a chance of passage.

Other provisions in the bill included more training for new administrators and an additional year of coaching and mentoring for teachers in their third year of teaching.

The bill would have also authorized school districts and local unions to negotiate dismissal procedures.

Bonilla said the current dismissal process takes about seven months and typically costs districts $100,000 to $200,000.

“No one can claim that the current system is working when it costs that amount of money,” she told the committee.

Her bill had “endured an onslaught of unreasonable scrutiny and criticism,” Bonilla said in a statement after the vote.

About 20 speakers addressed the senate committee to oppose the bill, including teachers, parents and students.

The California State PTA, Association of California School Administrators and California School Boards Association supported the bill.

Many of its supporters characterized the bill as a “good first step.”

The original bill would have also reduced the reliance on seniority in determining teacher layoffs and would have taken teacher performance into account, amending the “last in, first out” laws that determine layoffs, which was another issue raised in the Vergara lawsuit. That section was removed from the final version of the bill.

Senators Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, were the only votes in favor of the bill, saying they wanted to continue the discussion.

“I know that this bill is far from perfect,” said Liu, who chairs the committee.

“It will keep this conversation going with a little pressure on people,” Hancock said. “In the 14 years that I have sat on this committee, we have never had anything other than a banal, stereotyped confrontation on any of this issue.”

One senator told Bonilla she needed buy-in to move the bill forward successfully.

“I, too, have been seeking buy-in, but we’re in a situation that is so deeply polarized and so deeply political that the children are being lost. The children are being overlooked,” Bonilla said.

Those who opposed the bill said Bonilla was trying to take away teachers’ due process rights and that extending the probationary period would deter young people from entering the profession. Critics said extending the amount of time when new teachers can be fired without cause or explanation would create instability.

“Not only is this bill an erosion of teacher rights, but is an assault on California’s ability to attract new teachers into the profession,” said Jeff Freitas, secretary treasurer of the CFT. “This bill, if enacted, would ensure that California’s teacher shortage will become more severe.”

LA Unified teacher Bootsie Battle-Holt, who teaches at Marina Del Rey Middle School and is an elected member of UTLA, testified against the bill and called it “teacher policy without teacher voice.”

The bill is “not even an echo of what teachers think and say about the issues at hand,” she said.

Other people who spoke in opposition of the bill included Austin, students who are plaintiffs in the Vergara case, Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, and Mike Stryer, California executive director of Teach Plus. Like Students Matter, Teach Plus also initially supported Bonilla’s bill.

“This bill is not fully baked even though it’s over 100 degrees outside,” Lucia said.

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board wrote this week in support of the initial version of the bill: “The changes to AB934 are disappointing, but it’s still worth fighting to pass this bill. Although many school districts may choose not to negotiate a new dismissal process with their local unions, some will. When they’re successful, and the sky over public education doesn’t fall, it will be easier for reform advocates to return to the state Legislature with a stronger bill.”

In an interview after the hearing, Austin said it was unfortunate that his group had to oppose the bill.

“But at the end of the day, while we very much appreciate the good faith effort on Assemblywoman Bonilla’s part, the final product was a poster child for the kind of transactional inside baseball politics that voters all across the country are rejecting in real time,” he said.

Passage of the bill would have created an “illusion of change,” Austin said, and might have taken pressure off the state Supreme Court to take up the Vergara appeal, a decision that must be made by the end of August.

Austin said he was hopeful that future legislation would address these issues. He said he saw an “emerging bipartisan consensus” among the committee members that “the status quo is unacceptable.”

“The debate laid the groundwork for a future debate in a future legislature to take up this issue in earnest and address these issues in a way where they will have a real, not symbolic, but a real impact on low-income kids and students of color,” he said.

Also Wednesday, the committee approved a school accountability bill, AB 2548, by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, that will now head to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill, which Students Matter supports, seeks to define school and district expectations for student success and close the achievement gap.

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