Politics & Government

California measure would replace seniority with performance for teacher layoffs

A ballot measure submitted by a political consultant for education advocate Michelle Rhee seeks to remove seniority as a factor when California school districts lay off teachers, requiring instead that decisions be based on performance and student test scores.

That approach has been at the core of Rhee’s advocacy efforts as head of StudentsFirst, a national group headquartered in Sacramento. Rhee, who is married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, has said she established the group to try to counter the influence that teachers unions have in decisions about public education. Unions generally reject the idea that teachers should be rated based on their students’ test scores, and prefer contracts that call for the most recently hired teachers to be the first let go during layoffs.

The proposed initiative was submitted Monday by Matt David, a political consultant to StudentsFirst. David, former communications director to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said he submitted the measure on his own behalf and that StudentsFirst has not yet endorsed it.

“I would hope to get their support on this, assuming the language isn’t changed (by the attorney general),” David said. “But they haven’t taken a position yet, and I’ve advised other groups not to take a position until we get the language finalized.”

StudentsFirst spokesman Francisco Castillo said the group has been in talks about advancing a ballot measure in California next year but hasn’t yet decided if this will be it.

“We’re currently reviewing the language for this one, and we generally support the concepts behind it, but it’s premature to say whether we will take a position on it right now,” Castillo said.

The proposal for California’s 2014 ballot must receive a title and summary from the attorney general’s office before proponents can begin gathering signatures from the public to qualify it for the ballot.

The measure also would streamline the firing procedures for teachers convicted of sex crimes, setting up a possible conflict with another ballot measure recently proposed by an advocacy group called EdVoice, which generally shares StudentsFirst’s anti-union approach to education.

Both groups support the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but run independently from the school boards that govern traditional schools. Teachers at charter schools generally are not union members, making them a common target of union animosity.

Two more proposed initiatives that seek new restrictions on charter schools set the stage for a ballot box faceoff between teacher unions and groups that think they hold too much sway in the education system.

Thomas Willis, a Bay Area lawyer, has filed two versions of an initiative that would subject charter schools to California’s open meeting and public records laws and require charter school leaders to follow the state’s conflict of interest laws and submit statements of economic interest. It would prohibit for-profit companies from running charter schools and create new procedures for charters to engage in financial transactions.

Willis also filed a ballot measure that alleges some charter schools use “low-paid interns in place of fully credentialed teachers.” It would forbid teacher interns from working in the lowest-performing schools and require that “superintendents, principals and similar administrators” at charter schools whose test scores are in the bottom 30 percent statewide hold a teaching or administrative credential.

Willis referred The Bee’s calls about the initiatives to Gale Kaufman, political consultant to the California Teachers Association. Kaufman was not available on Tuesday. The union’s spokeswoman, Claudia Briggs, said CTA is examining the initiatives and will form its strategy in the new year.

“It is certainly disappointing to see both EdVoice and StudentsFirst submit for the ballot two tremendously destructive as well as clearly politically charged initiatives to draw the education community into an unnecessary and costly initiative election that’s not good for students or any of us,” Briggs said in an email.

StudentsFirst has been active in several states but has made little headway so far in California, where public employee unions hold big clout in the state Capitol. The organization recently hired labor lobbyist Jovan Agee, who previously represented the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to head up its California operation.

StudentsFirst pushed for a bill to add student test scores to teachers’ performance evaluations earlier this year, but Senate Bill 441 died in its first committee.

The bill was carried by Sen. Ron Calderon, the Montebello Democrat whose office was raided this summer by the FBI. A sealed FBI affidavit made public by Al-Jazeera America alleges that Calderon accepted $88,000 in bribes from a hospital executive and an undercover agent posing as a movie studio owner.

In 2012, StudentsFirst pitched a bill in California that sought to remove seniority as a factor in teacher layoff procedures, instead basing layoffs largely on job performance, according to a confidential draft The Bee obtained last year. The bill also would have changed the teacher evaluation system so that at least half the ratings were based on student test scores.

Calderon’s brother, Charles Calderon, who was an assemblyman at the time, said he was interested in introducing the bill, but ran out of time during the 2012 session.

StudentsFirst poured more than $1 million into legislative races in 2012, including support for Ian Calderon – the son of Charles Calderon and nephew of Ron Calderon – as well as Assembly candidates Cheryl Brown and Brian Johnson. All are Democrats who faced opponents backed by the California Teachers Association.

Ian Calderon and Brown won their races and now serve in the state Assembly.

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