It could become easier to fire a teacher in California: The Assembly Education Committee voted 7-0 Wednesday to approve a bill that would streamline the process for jettisoning incompetent or abusive educators.
The current dismissal process "is too long and takes too much money," the bill's author, Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, said at the committee hearing. "When it takes 18 months, two years, to resolve a case or it costs well over $100,000, not only can that money be better spent in the classroom but it's not fair to the district in its ability to move forward, nor is it fair to the employee."
The vote to advance Buchanan's bill, Assembly Bill 375, comes after last year's abortive attempt to address teacher dismissal. A bill by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, faltered in part because of opposition from the California Teachers Association, but the powerful teachers union has backed AB 375.
Teachers unions and education reformers have clashed vehemently over the process for dismissing teachers. Critics argue that it is too difficult to fire underperforming educators, while unions say they want a fair appeals process to guard against firings that could be motivated by vengeful principals or false accusations.
Padilla pushed a bill last year to expedite the process for firing teachers, pivoting off of public outcry after a Los Angeles elementary school teacher, Mark Berndt, got a $40,000 payout to resolve his appeal of being fired for allegedly sexually abusing students. Padilla's bill would have required districts to move to dismiss teachers accused of sexual abuse without allotting time for an investigation.
But the bill also would have dissolved an appeals panel composed of two teachers and an administrative law judge, instead leaving the final decision to school boards. The California Teachers Association argued that the bill stripped teachers of a key job protection by putting their cases before the district rather than a panel of their peers, and the legislation failed.
"We felt that was the ultimate kangaroo court," said Dean Vogel, president of the CTA.
Buchanan's bill, AB 375, retains the appeals panel, a change that has helped get the CTA's support. It also limits the entire appeals process to seven months and requires a district to present documents within 30 days of moving to dismiss a teacher, provisions that Vogel said will save time and money.
"Part of the reason the process takes so long is the district's got to build a case, so if they get to the point where they don't really have the kind of information they need they can add another charge and then substantiate it," Vogel said. "If you're extending a process over time, that's what's costing lots of money."
Buchanan's bill also would bar teachers from appealing suspensions to a court and would allow judges to admit older evidence in some sex abuse cases (the current window is four years). Certain drug offenses also would subject teachers to leaves of absence, and homicide charges would mandate a leave of absence.
Administrators have found some things to like in the bill. The Association of California School Administrators, which backed Padilla's legislation last year, has not taken a formal position on AB 375. Lobbyist Laura Preston said she wished the bill went further, calling the three-member appeals panel "a huge issue," but she praised a part of the bill that allows districts to initiate the dismissal process in the summer.
"It's definitely an improvement upon existing process and existing law," Preston said.
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @jeremybwhite.