A modest teacher tenure bill meets a bipartisan death

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, supports modest changes in public school teacher tenure rules.
State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, supports modest changes in public school teacher tenure rules. Sacramento Bee file

California Sen. Loni Hancock is a true believer in public schools. Teachers are heroic and ought to be paid more, she believes.

But like many parents and grandparents, Hancock has a horror story about one of the small number of teachers who should not have been allowed into a classroom.

At a school in Hancock’s East Bay district some years back, her grandson’s teacher would call kids stupid. The principal’s lame excuse was that he had no power to intervene. So the Hancock family reacted by enrolling the boy in a Catholic school.

Hancock recounted the story on Wednesday as she explained why she was voting for a bill that had run afoul of both public school reformers and the powerful public school teachers’ unions, one of the Democrats’ main sources of support.

The bill, AB 934 by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, a former schoolteacher, was modest at best, as detailed by The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff. Currently, teachers gain tenure after only two years in the classroom. Bonilla’s bill would have lengthened that period to three years. Teachers and principals also would have received more mentoring and training, in the hope that young teachers would receive greater support.

The bill, pared back by amendments, should have gone further. But as Hancock told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member, “You have to start somewhere.” It might have been a start, except that it died a bipartisan death.

The bill garnered only two yes votes in the Senate Education Committee, that of Hancock, D-Berkeley, and Sen. Carol Liu, a Democrat from suburban Los Angeles. Four Democrats voted against it – Marty Block of San Diego, Bill Monning of Carmel, Connie Leyva of Chino and Tony Mendoza of Artesia, as did Andy Vidak, R-Hanford. Sens. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and Republican Bob Huff of suburban Los Angeles failed to vote.

Bonilla’s bill was a partial response to the Vergara decision of 2014 in which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that protections given to veteran teachers were so strong that they violated the constitutional rights of children in poor areas. An appellate court refused that decision, and the case is pending before the California Supreme Court. We hope the high court steps into the vacuum left by the Legislature.

The PTA, Association of California School Administrators and California School Boards Association supported Bonilla’s bill. But they’re not the ones with clout. The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers are. They claimed the bill took away teachers’ rights. Some of the unions’ foes, including the group that organized the Vergara lawsuit, argued the bill didn’t go far enough.

During July when legislators take their summer break, they should find a path forward. Failing that, voters should keep in mind the modest nature of Bonilla’s bill this November when the public school establishment urges them to extend by 12 years what was supposed to have been a temporary income tax increase on high earners.

Hancock, for one, will “enthusiastically” vote for the tax initiative. Schools need more funding, teachers deserve better pay and classes should be smaller, she believes, as does this editorial board.

But school administrators should be empowered to discipline the few bad teachers. That’s in the best interest of children and ultimately of the vast majority of dedicated, talented and, yes, heroic, public school teachers.