Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Two California school bills show teacher union power

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Susan Bonilla and Joan Buchanan are Democrats who represent adjacent Assembly districts in the affluent East Bay suburbs along the Interstate 680 corridor.

Bonilla, a former teacher, and Buchanan, a former school-board member, have both staked out public education as their big issue.

However, the two are also potential – even probable – rivals when the region’s state Senate seat opens up in three years. They could even face each other twice under the top-two primary system.

The two appear to be already vying for support from the education establishment, especially the California Teachers Association, which may explain, at least partially, why both moved highly controversial, CTA-backed bills through the Legislature this year and onto Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Bonilla’s Assembly Bill 484, signed this week, suspends the state’s academic testing program, thereby suspending creation of test-based Academic Performance Index scores for the state’s schools and undercutting the basis for parents to take control of low-performing schools from districts.

The CTA and other elements of the education establishment loathe the testing/API process because it holds them publicly accountable and raises the possibility of teachers being graded on the achievements of students, or lack thereof.

The rationale for the bill, also supported by the CTA’s staunch ally, state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson, was that the state is implementing new Common Core academic standards and that testing will be realigned with Common Core. But education reformers fear, with good cause, that the API and parental rights will be eroded.

Buchanan’s Assembly Bill 375, meanwhile, would make some largely cosmetic changes to the process for firing teachers who abuse children, but could, critics say, make the process even more Byzantine than it is now.

The issue was sparked by the case of a sexually abusive teacher in Los Angeles who was essentially paid off, rather than fired. Last year, the Senate passed a bill to make firing such teachers easier, but the CTA killed the bill in the Assembly, saying it would violate teachers’ due process rights, and this year offered AB 375 as a substitute.

While Brown signed the testing suspension measure, the fate of Buchanan’s bill is less certain due to strong opposition from school districts and reform advocates.

However, if it is vetoed, it leaves a dysfunctional disciplinary system in place.

Both bills demonstrate the immense influence that the teachers union enjoys in the Legislature and the lengths to which ambitious politicians will go to endear themselves to the powerful union.

No matter what happens, Bonilla and Buchanan have shown their obsequiousness to the CTA. And as they look forward to a Senate contest, that may be the important thing.