Capitol Alert

California bill tackles teacher tenure, firing, layoff rules

A pre-kindergarten student at H.W. Harkness Elementary School in Sacramento with Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord.
A pre-kindergarten student at H.W. Harkness Elementary School in Sacramento with Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord.

A California lawmaker is introducing legislation to answer a court ruling that could upend California’s teacher employment rules.

Currently on appeal, a 2014 decision in the Vergara v. California lawsuit ruled unconstitutional laws that dictate how long it takes teachers to earn tenure, how underperforming teachers can be fired and how teachers are laid off during budget pinches. Judge Rolf Treu agreed with plaintiffs that the laws hurt disadvantaged students by keeping inept teachers in classrooms.

The group pursuing the lawsuit argues it went to the courts because a Legislature cozy with teachers unions will not act. Since Treu’s ruling, Republicans in the Democrat-dominated Legislature have unsuccessfully pushed bills to change teacher employment rules. They failed, opposed by the California Teachers Association and other unions.

This bill hopefully can lay to rest this persistent narrative (that) has brought an awful lot of focus to a very small group of teachers.

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord

But Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, says she believes her Assembly Bill 934 will resolve lingering issues around teacher employment by allowing schools to give struggling teachers more support and then, if they continue to flail, dismissing them.

“This will resolve an issue that’s recently been plaguing education where your good teachers are getting associated with unsatisfactory teachers in a way that is very demoralizing,” said Bonilla, a former teacher. “This bill hopefully can lay to rest this persistent narrative (that) has brought an awful lot of focus to a very small group of teachers.”

Under Bonilla’s bill, teachers who are doing poorly would be placed into a program that offers them extra professional support. If they receive another low performance review after a year in the program, they could be fired via an expedited process regardless of their experience level.

New teachers would potentially take longer to obtain permanent employment status, often referred to as tenure. The probationary period for new teachers now lasts 18 months. Bonilla’s bill would allow school officials to keep teachers on probation for a third or fourth year after placing them in the professional assistance program.

Seniority would no longer be the single overriding factor in handing out pink slips. While tenured teachers with positive reviews would still be the last to go, Bonilla’s bill would allow districts to lay off permanent teachers with two or more poor reviews before they lay off newer teachers who have not received poor evaluations.

Bonilla characterized her bill as a lifeline to educators in need of help.

“The point of the bill is not to focus on dismissal,” she said. “The point of the bill is to say ‘we have great teachers in the state of California, let’s start by supporting the ones who need it the most.’ 

Neither the California Teachers Association nor the Association of California School Administrators has yet analyzed the bill and taken a position.

But the measure could face resistance from the CTA and other unions that tend to oppose measures they see as depriving teachers of their due process rights. A CTA spokesman highlighted general concerns about a lack of funding for peer review and warned a longer probationary period could allow ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom.

“And we believe that layoff situations due to budget cuts are the wrong vehicle for dealing with performance issues that should have been resolved earlier,” spokesman Frank Wells wrote in an email.

A spokesman for Students Matter, the organization suing California, also said the organization did not yet have a stance on Bonilla’s bill. But in order for a new law to negate the need for a lawsuit, spokesman Manny Rivera said, it would have to meet the standard laid out in Treu’s ruling invalidating the current laws.

“This bill, and any others that may be put forward by the Legislature, will and should be viewed through that lens,” Rivera said in an email.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert

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