It was a busy week in Sacramento, city of trees, where state legislators were frantically jamming their bills through committees to make a May 1 deadline by which all proposed laws must sent to various fiscal committees to live another day.
Lost in a hullaballoo over a hotly debated childhood vaccination bill, and a law concerning body cameras, and Gov. Jerry Brown's new water tunnel plan, were five bills in the State Assembly education committee, one of which set California's once-united Democrats into battle against other Democrats.
The legislature is faced with changing long-standing California laws for evaluating, firing and laying off teachers. This in response to a game-changing 2014 ruling by a Los Angeles judge in Vergara v. California, which found that California's education codes regarding teacher tenure, teacher dismissals and seniority-based layoffs of teachers violate the constitutional rights of children.
The nationally watched case, Vergara, will make its way to an appeals court in September and a ruling is expected in January 2016. Until then, the current laws stand. But some legislators are dipping their toes into the waters, testing things out to see just what changes might be possible if the legislature indeed is ordered by the courts in 2016 to rewrite a huge chunk of the California Education Code.
Now, normally, Democrats stick together and march to the beat of the teachers unions, which is one of the most powerful special-interest lobby groups in California.
But recent reforms — and changing public opinion about teachers unions — are giving rise to Dem-on-Dem political spats.
Shirley Weber grew up in Pueblo del Rio, a poor South Los Angeles housing project known as “the Pueblos.” She made her way out and went on to college, earned a Ph.D. at UCLA and was elected president of the San Diego Unified School Board before winning election to the California Assembly in 2012.
Weber introduced a seemingly moderate bill on Wednesday to accomplish three things: She wanted to add a new category called “needs improvement” to California forms that evaluate teachers and provide only two choices, “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.” Her reform would signal that the teacher needs training in order to be more effective in class.
Second, her bill would require that funds be spent to train the teachers who are in need of improvement.
Third, and most controversially, Weber's bill would require that teacher evaluations be based at least in part on their students' academic growth — not necessarily by using student test scores, but not banning their use, either.
A judge has ruled, in another lawsuit, Doe v. Deasy, that Los Angeles Unified School District must use objective measures of student progress in its teacher evaluations. So that's what Weber wanted to do.
That's also what her fellow Democrats in the state Assembly had such strong objections to.
Sacramento is a pretty congenial place — there's a lot of back-slapping and fist-bumping and laughing that goes on in the hallways and aisles. But when Weber's Democratic colleagues signaled that they would not let her bill out of the education committee — effectively burying it, preventing it from getting to the Assembly floor — Weber lit into them.
“When I see what’s going on, I’m offended, as a senior member of this committee, who has probably more educational background and experience than all ya’ll put together on top of each other,” Weber lashed out.
Weber was even more candid when speaking to L.A. Weekly the next day.
“Obviously, it was orchestrated by the teachers union to not let the bill out,” she said. “It was purely political.”
Interestingly, the Assembly Education committee chair, Patrick O'Donnell, wants to take Weber's idea of a “needs improvement” evaluation for teachers and incorporate it into his own teacher-evaluation bill. But Weber objects to that, too.
“You're gonna rape me, rape my bill and take it as your own?” she said, incredulously. “After the work we’ve done, without my name on it? I’m not having that. You may do it, but you will not do it without my permission.”
If the California appellate court does, in January, uphold the Vergara ruling and remove the current stay that has left things in limbo, then a huge chunk of the Education Code will disappear overnight.
Sacramento's Democratic majority will then be forced to scramble and rewrite new teacher-dismissal laws that comply with Vergara and can withstand lawsuits.
“The tragedy of what is going on,” Weber said, “is that the only thing people feel that they can do to bring change for their children is to sue the state of California. That is unfortunate.”
Two other big proposals came from Republicans on the committee. One would have extended the amount of time a teacher must teach in the classroom before being granted what amounts, in California, to lifelong tenure, from two years to three.
California has one of the quickest routes to tenure in the United States. A few states grant no tenure at all, and most others require three to five years of classroom experience. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, would have given administrators one more year to deny tenure — if a teacher got consecutive bad performance reviews (similar to tougher tenure rules proposed by former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy).
The other proposal, by Republican Assembly member Catharine Baker, would have ended a long-standing California law that requires school districts to use a “last in, first out” layoff policy when teacher cutbacks are made.
Under current law, the most recently hired teachers lose their jobs first, and those with most seniority last. Baker's bill would have allowed seniority to still be a factor but would have forced school districts to take teacher performance into consideration.
Both Republican bills were immediately shot down by the education committee — unsurprisingly, since the seven-member committee has only two Republicans and GOP laws containing anything controversial aren't allowed out of Sacramento committees by the powerful Dems.
But California's teacher-tenure rules are increasingly unpopular with another powerful group — California voters.
A recent Los Angeles Times poll on education found that only 9 percent of voters favor giving teachers tenure after three years or less experience in the classroom. Voters are far tougher on teachers than is the legislature: Nearly half said teachers should get four years or more classroom experience.
And 38 percent of California voters said public school teachers shouldn't receive tenure at all.
The same poll also found that only 8 percent support the “last in, first out” layoff policy, while a whopping 79 percent of those polled said teacher layoffs should be based, in some way, on their performance in their jobs.
For now, California's two-year requirement for earning tenure will stay in place, as will “last in, first out.” At least until January.
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