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.”
“California law is clearly failing to protect the children,” Lin says. “Three more months go by before notification of the attempt to dismiss — which takes a very long time — begins. Mayor Villaraigosa is deeply disappointed about what happened to SB 1530, as I am. Alex Padilla had it right.”
Padilla has until the end of August to revive his failed bill. Whether he succeeds or not, when historians look back at the failure-by-abstention of Senate Bill 1530 in June, it is likely to be pegged as a key turning point for Democratic politicians in California on the hot-potato issue of firing bad teachers.
Parent Revolution executive director Ben Austin says, “That vote was outrageous. If you ever needed a prove point that the interests of powerful special interests trump the needs of parents and kids, that was it.”
Austin, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, says he's not anti–teachers union, and notes, “Many of the supporters of this bill are progressive Democrats who support unions and teachers unions. This has nothing to do with that. We're looking to protect children who are in a teacher's care.”
Of Butler's and Eng's abstentions, Austin declares, “They should be embarrassed. They should be ashamed.”
Today, powerful breakaway Democrats — many of them liberal Latinos, including Padilla and Romero — no longer accede to CTA and UTLA. They have openly split with the unions and are fighting key pieces of the union platform, including its protection of educators who should not be near children or have shown they cannot learn to competently teach.
Padilla is a measured man whose most radical comments are phrases such as: “I was as surprised as anyone to see this resistance from those who voted no and those who abstained.”
But Romero pointedly critiques Democrats who toe the CTA line. She says the Democrats who make up the majority vote on the Assembly Education Committee are “dominated” by the California Teachers Association. (The only apparent exception is the committee's Democratic chairwoman, Julia Brownley of Oak Park in Ventura County, who voted yes on SB 1530 but could not get her Democratic colleagues to join her. Only the minority Republicans joined Brownley in voting yes on the bill.)
Brownley's lonely courage went unremarked by the Sacramento press corps, and she was not quoted in print. But as she explained that day, “I do believe the bill is very narrowly crafted for a teacher or other certified personnel within a school district who in the very, very rare circumstance sexually abuses a child or who abuses children through a violent act or through neglect, or who engages with students with illegal drugs. I … wanted the author to accept amendments that we discussed, but today I'm going to err on the side that this bill will give school districts some tools in their toolbox to address the very rare and unspeakable acts that may occur in the future.”
Romero is particularly distressed by the behavior of Eng, who has slowly climbed from Monterey Park City Council member to town mayor to Sacramento legislator, and whose wife, Judy Chu, has similarly climbed to become a U.S. congresswoman.
Last year, Eng authored an anti-bullying bill to prevent bullying in schools. Gov. Jerry Brown signed that bill into law in 2011. “The ultimate bullying is sexual abuse of kids in the classroom,” Romero says, “but [Mike Eng] remained silent with [SB 1530].”
“Bills in the Assembly don't die because the members vote no,” Romero adds. “They die because [Assembly] members are silent. They show no backbone. … People like Mike Eng remain silent, or try to skip out of the room, rather than show backbone.”
For years, CTA has been the biggest giver of campaign cash to Eng.
Another breakaway Latino Democrat is Yolie Flores, an ex-L.A. Unified School Board member who decided to leave her powerful elective post after realizing the school board has little real power. Among the biggest problems Flores encountered: Few L.A. teachers are ever seriously evaluated for competence, yet they're granted lifelong tenure after just 18 months on the job and then are extremely difficult to fire.
Flores marvels that Padilla “had the courage to put [SB 1530] forward. I was cheering Alex the whole time. I was really proud of him. It's been a challenge to get this kind of bill through in Sacramento.”
Flores now is president of Communities for Teaching Excellence, a national organization based in L.A. that is trying to improve teaching skills, give teachers more support — and then hold teachers accountable for whether kids learn.
She says of the CTA's view that existing state laws already make sure that bad adults are removed from classrooms: “I don't know what planet Dean Vogel lives on, but that's not the reality. I worked on the [LAUSD] board, and I know what really happens.” Even when disastrous teachers are permanently removed from contact with children, Flores says, California law is so stacked against firing them that “we'll put them in the rubber room — they are still paid — and that's taxpayers' money.”
She's disgusted by Butler, Eng and other Democrats, who ensured that Padilla's bill would die. “They're cowards,” Flores says. “They should have voted up or down. To abstain, they abdicated their responsibilities. I have no respect for that.”
Austin, for years a defender of UTLA and CTA, tries to explain the unusual and increasingly intense split among Democrats over education and teachers unions.
He started breaking away after learning that lemon teachers were for decades secretly moved from job to job in L.A., hurting thousands of children. Now many Democratic opinion leaders back charter schools, Teach for America and Parent Trigger. “You can't maintain power without moral integrity,” Austin says.
**An earlier version of this story erroneously attributed this quote to UTLA president Warren Fletcher.