Twelve years ago, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger learned a painful lesson about the might of the California Teachers Assn. when he pushed a ballot measure to lengthen the time it takes for teachers to get tenure. Not only did that proposal go down, but the revved-up union energy contributed to the defeat of the entire slate of Schwarzenegger-backed proposals, putting a serious dent in his image as the guy who could slide into Sacramento from Hollywood and sell anything to voters.
The issue didn’t die when Proposition 74 was defeated, however. There has been an unending debate about the value and effects of tenure, several bills to weaken tenure laws, and one big lawsuit: the Vergara complaint, which claimed that teacher-protection laws unconstitutionally deprived California students of a decent education. The assertion was off base, and the lawsuit was rejected on appeal last year. But the Vergara plaintiffs’ critique of the system was valid: The laws go too far in placing the right of teachers to job protections over the right of students to reasonably good teachers. Even if they’re not unconstitutional, the laws are bad policy. But the majority of legislators can’t seem to muster the moxie to do what they clearly know is in the students’ best interests, not with so much CTA campaign money floating around Sacramento.
Twelve years after Schwarzenegger’s failed try, this is precisely how far we’ve come: Nowhere.
Still, another year, another effort: AB 1220 by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) would enact the mildest sort of tenure reform, addressing only the situation that Schwarzenegger tried to tackle with Proposition 74. It’s expected to reach the Assembly floor for a vote in early June.
Under current law, a school district has to decide whether to permanently hire a probationary teacher after two years on the job, which, given requirements for notice, actually means after 18 months. Considering that firing a permanent teacher is a long, expensive procedure that is stacked against the school district, 18 months to make such a decision is utterly inadequate. It takes most new teachers four years to reach their peak performance, numerous studies have found. In fact, the short timeline is, if anything, unfair to new instructors. A teacher who looks like an iffy prospect at 18 months might be rejected under the current do-or-die law; that same teacher might improve by leaps and bounds over the next year if he or she is retained.
Assembly Bill 1220 would extend the probationary period by one more year, placing California in the same ballpark as almost every other state. And if a teacher’s skills still look wobbly in the middle of that third year, the school could extend probationary status by up to two more years, but would have to invest in considerable training to help the teacher improve.
This isn’t all the reform that California needs in the laws governing public school teachers. Firing obviously bad or uncaring classroom instructors shouldn’t be as long or hard a procedure as it is. Seniority protections go too far in keeping more seasoned teachers in their jobs, even when they are drastically underperforming compared with less experienced colleagues.
The trouble lies in finding the right middle ground. It’s important for the state to maintain protective laws for teachers, whose jobs could otherwise be at risk for reasons having nothing to do with their skill or dedication. A teacher revered by one principal might be picked on by the next one, and cash-strapped schools might have an incentive to fire experienced, but higher paid, faculty. California won’t improve its schools by making teachers feel they’re under attack.
Proposed legislation last year made a good attempt to reach that solid middle ground on tenure, giving principals a measured bit of additional power to delay judgments and to fire poorly performing teachers. Predictably, the Legislature, which has a long record of acceding to the wishes of the teachers union, rejected it.
The CTA opposes AB 1220 too, although it’s hard to imagine why it would balk at even this modest, narrowly targeted bill. The union’s argument that the measure would discourage people from entering teaching rings false. There is no evidence that weaker tenure protections in other states have turned off prospective teachers, or that California’s stronger law has encouraged them, considering that the state faces a severe shortage of qualified teachers in math, science and other fields. AB 1220 is entirely reasonable, and lawmakers should be willing to part company with the CTA enough to pass it.