State Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles had every reason to hope that the 11 members of the obscure but powerful state Assembly Education Committee in Sacramento would back his new legislation, Senate Bill 1530, designed to let public schools more easily fire teachers who commit sexual, physically abusive or drug-related acts with their students.
The bill, written by the former L.A. city councilman from the San Fernando Valley, a graduate of MIT who is seen by many as a man with a political future, had sailed through the Senate Education Committee in the upper house on a bipartisan vote. In the state Capitol, news reports about disgusting teachers who weren't fired thanks to rigidly protective laws — teachers such as alleged sex pervert Mark Berndt — were fresh in legislators' minds.
Egregious-behaving teachers have formidable powers. LAUSD secretly paid Berndt $40,000 to quit. That was far less money than LAUSD would have shelled out for attorneys and Berndt's ongoing salary — only to perhaps see him reinstated by California's unusually powerful, three-person Commission on Professional Competence, controlled by two teachers-union appointees who are increasingly criticized for not acting on behalf of children.
Since Berndt, a series of bad-teacher incidents has played out. Most recently, gym teacher Kip Arnold careened off a freeway after officers tried to question him about oral copulation and penetration with a foreign object of a girl at Nimitz Middle School in 2005. Kip told the officer he wanted to kill himself, fled and crashed.
Padilla's SB 1530 was aimed at quickly firing people like Berndt and Kip.
But in late June, Democratic legislators from six Southern and Northern California communities killed Padilla's bill. Two Democrats voted no on SB 1530 — Tom Ammiano of San Francisco and Joan Buchanan of Alamo. And four Democrats, including Betsy Butler of Los Angeles and Mike Eng of Monterey Park, refused to vote at all, knowing their abstentions would assure that SB 1530 failed by a single vote — and that their non-votes would go largely under the radar. (The other two abstaining Democrats were Wilmer Amina Carter of Rialto and Das Williams of Santa Barbara.)
Butler is running against Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom to represent State Assembly District 50, one of the wealthiest and most liberal districts in the country.
Education reformers say that Butler, Eng and the other abstainers were motivated by their fear of the California Teachers Association, an extremely wealthy, aggressive union that has launched — and ruined — numerous Democrats' careers in California.
CTA president Dean Vogel insisted to L.A. Weekly that SB 1530 wasn't about keeping children safe but was merely a "highly charged political reaction" to the Berndt scandal — and nothing less than a "recipe for disaster" for the due-process rights of teachers.
"The bill changed the way we go about teacher dismissal, and it takes away an independent panel," Vogel insists, referring to the controversial Commission on Professional Competence. He repeated CTA's decades-long view that existing law is sufficient to remove a sexually or physically abusive teacher.
Echoing Vogel, Butler said Padilla's bill made the teacher-firing process "more political" and "jeopardized due process." She and Vogel want Padilla to compromise. She called her abstention "a nice no ... that means I'm with you.' "
But ex-state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat who was the Legislature's expert on education during her years in Sacramento and now is state director of Democrats for Education Reform in California, says the Berndt scandal "should have been the final wake-up call" for Democratic legislators to support Padilla's bill, which she describes as "very moderate."
Explains Romero, "It was a narrowly crafted bill. There's always a concern about due process, but those things could have been worked out."
Padilla said of his bill's death, "It came out of the Senate on a 33-4 vote — an overwhelming bipartisan vote. I am willing to make small changes. But I am not going to gut these very narrowly crafted reforms."
Under current law, for instance, a school district cannot even begin the notification process — that it wants to dismiss a teacher for egregious behavior — if it's summertime. Why? Because some teachers might have to cut short vacations to set up legal teams or huddle with family; some may ignore their mail all summer.
Padilla's bill lets the first notice go forth as soon as it's ready.
CTA officials** urged educators to stop SB 1530, warning that it "would allow employers to send out a notice to dismiss during the summer when many certificated personnel are not in town."
Dr. Matthew Lin, an orthopedic surgeon and Republican who stunned political strategists by placing first in Mike Eng's Monterey Park Democratic Assembly stronghold in the June primary and is now a contender in November (Eng is termed out), tells the Weekly that the summer grace period for teachers facing terrible sexual, drug and physical abuse charges against children "is unjustifiable in our society."