It always made more sense for California to fix some of its over-the-top teacher protection laws than to defend them in court, as it has been doing in the ongoing case of Vergara vs. California. Now, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) has seen the light, and has crafted a bill of common-sense provisions that protect both teachers and students; it deserves to become law.
A lower-court ruling in the Vergara case agreed with the plaintiffs that several existing laws make it too hard to fire bad teachers. One law sets out an arcane appeal system for teachers fighting their termination; it costs far too much money and takes several years. Another makes seniority practically the only factor in deciding layoffs; a high-achieving new teacher must be laid off before an underperforming veteran one. And right now, principals must decide whether to give tenure to a new teacher within 18 months of hiring, which in some cases is too early to judge.
No matter which way the appellate courts rule in Vergara, Bonilla's AB 934 would rightly amend these laws, making them more reasonable and practical, while preventing capricious or vindictive firings of teachers by school administrators.
Under the bill, a teacher whose performance was rated "unsatisfactory" would be given a year of training and support. Those who didn't improve could be fired — but could appeal through binding arbitration.
Seniority would still count in layoffs, except for teachers rated unsatisfactory, who would be laid off before less-experienced teachers with better performance.
And although a new teacher could still be hired permanently after 18 months in some cases, principals would have the option of waiting until a third or even fourth year — giving people whose skills are shaky a chance to improve before letting them go or giving them tenure protections.
Despite the lower-court ruling, it's not clear that existing seniority and tenure laws are denying California's students their constitutional right to an education. Truly bad teachers are a rarity; the judge's decision was based on testimony estimating the number at 1% to 3% of teachers. California schools have much bigger problems than a very small percentage of bad apples. The schools face a serious teaching shortage right now; layoffs are yesterday's news.
Still, the protections go too far; people who don't do their jobs don't deserve to hang onto them, especially when students suffer as a result. AB 938 makes sense, though neither the teachers' unions nor reform groups have signed on. And that's the saddest part of all: two sides so caught up in their own rigid ideologies that they are preventing education from moving forward.