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Prop. 74 Has Some Teachers at Odds

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Times Staff Writer

Throughout California, teachers can barely make a photocopy or check a school mailbox these days without getting slapped by competing campaign slogans over a controversial teacher quality initiative.

The issue has pitted teachers against each other. Some hold quiet conversations in campus corners, avoid volunteering for union phone banks and keep their heads down when the subject arises in the faculty lounge.

Public schoolteachers are nervously wondering who among them will lose their jobs if voters on Nov. 8 approve Proposition 74, which would lengthen probationary periods for teachers and ease the rules for firing poor-performing veteran instructors.

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In such a politically divisive campus climate, some “don’t want to pipe up and say whether or not they support it,” said Jacqueline Watson, 33, an instructor at Kramer Middle School in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District. Those who do, she said, sometimes get cold stares or the silent treatment from colleagues.

If the measure is approved, some teachers say, it could rid California schools of ineffective instructors who curse at students, or talk on cellphones and show “Legally Blonde” during class. Other teachers fear that it would drive talented, low-paid teachers with master’s degrees into more lucrative professions.

For the last several months, the California Teachers Assn., which represents 335,000 educators, has tried to convince its members -- and the public -- that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot initiative misses the mark and could unintentionally make it harder to remove poor teachers.

The union has deluged faculty mailboxes with pamphlets detailing why its members should reject the initiative. It has organized phone banks, posted fliers near school copy machines and sent teachers e-mails. Radio ads began recently.

It also temporarily increased membership dues, which union leaders said was necessary to fight Proposition 74 and other ballot measures that could reduce education funding and curb union fundraising.

On Saturday, hundreds of teachers around the state walked precincts and manned phone banks to urge voters to defeat Proposition 74 as well as other initiatives they deemed harmful to the state’s education system.

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Barbara E. Kerr, president of the teachers union, and State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, alongside two dozen teachers, launched the efforts in front of Venice High School.

The governor “won’t improve education with his half-baked ideas,” said O’Connell, who said he believed that Proposition 74 would make California less attractive for qualified teachers. “We need to attract the best and the brightest among us.”

In its own campaign blitz, the governor’s office is sending mailers to teachers and airing television and radio ads promoting the initiative as part of a so-called reform effort that would give school districts another tool to deal with poorly performing teachers, instead of keeping them or transferring them from school to school in a practice known as the “dance of the lemons.”

The state’s administrators union has taken a neutral position on the proposal.

Under state law, administrators can dismiss without explanation teachers who have been on the job less than two years. After two years in the classroom, teachers earn permanent status. Before dismissing them, district officials must document poor performance and give the instructor 90 days to improve.

Schwarzenegger’s measure would allow school districts to dismiss teachers summarily during the first five years.

The governor sought to address concerns of parents who have long held that districts are slow to remove poor teachers, his office said.

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During a recent lunch period at Lincoln Elementary School in the Glendale Unified School District, four teachers gathered in a classroom around a child-sized table, away from the faculty lounge, and quietly griped about the initiative.

Amanda Gandara, 26, is a temporary teacher who hopes to begin her probationary phase next year. If the initiative passes, she will have to wait at least five more years to reach permanent status. Gandara and her husband want to have children, but if Proposition 74 passes, they will be forced to wait until she has a guaranteed income, she said.

“It makes it very stressful every year the stability is not there,” said Gandara, who is struggling to pay off student loans.

In the Chino Valley Unified School District, 25-year-old Amber Calabrese said she would not mind if the state required her to complete a few more years of probation.

“If you’re doing a good job and you’re working hard, you really have no reason to be afraid of losing your job,” she said.

Calabrese, who is in her third year of teaching at Dickson Elementary School in Chino, achieved permanent status this year. She appreciated her two years as a probationary instructor because administrators regularly observed her special education classroom. During those sessions, her principal suggested experienced teachers she could talk to for classroom management tips.

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Calabrese said she has seen veteran instructors who have “senioritis.” Some use archaic teaching methods that don’t fit with today’s state standards and expectations, she said. She has seen teachers drain the fun out of learning. She knows of one high school Spanish teacher in the district who showed the movie “Legally Blonde” instead of teaching.

“Some people see tenure as ‘Oh, now I don’t have to work as hard,’ ” Calabrese said. “If you think after three years you don’t have to work as hard, what will you think in 25 years?”

The initiative also would simplify the process for dismissing teachers with permanent status. It would allow district officials to fire an instructor, without declaring their intentions in advance or waiting 90 days, after two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations.

“It’s like being on probation your whole life,” said Pat Dashner, a 34-year veteran, who has spent many of those years at Lincoln Elementary.

She said schools already follow effective dismissal procedures. A teacher was fired after an investigation found that he had fudged standardized test results, she said.

But Larry Sand, a teacher at Webster Middle School in Los Angeles, said one teacher on his campus was transferred to another school after she sunbathed topless on the athletic field during third period.

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“It just moves the dirt under a different rug. It’s terrible,” he said. “So the children at our school have one less bad teacher, but the children at another school have one more.”

He said he supports Proposition 74 because it would give principals more power to dismiss poor teachers.

Others say the governor’s proposal is a distraction from more significant burdens.

Tracey Black, a 15-year veteran at Lincoln, said teaching has become more demanding, with students entering with more emotional problems and lagging in basic skills.

Additionally, budget cuts have strained teachers’ jobs, she said. This year, Lincoln teachers asked parents to supply their children’s pencils, paper, tape, markers and glue. When families could not afford it, teachers dipped into their own pockets to help out. “It’s to the point where I’m just not sure how much longer I can do this,” Black said.

The unions worry that more teachers like Black will consider leaving if Proposition 74 is approved, especially because turnover among many qualified teachers is already high.

About one-third of the teachers hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1998-99 school year left within five years, according to the district.

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Roberta Patterson, a veteran teacher at Millikan High School in the Long Beach Unified School District, said she and others have a responsibility to protect younger teachers from unfair initiatives.

The union’s campaign against Proposition 74 is teachers’ only hope, she said. If teachers are afraid of job security, they may never be comfortable enough to speak up on other issues or teach in creative ways.

“We don’t have a lot of power, and our union does speak for us,” Patterson said, “and we wanted to fight this.”

The union’s voice permeates Jacqueline Watson’s school in Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified. She said teachers who don’t agree learn to “keep your mouth shut or head down.”

“Teachers are really busy people,” said Watson, a union member who has been teaching for eight years. “They tend to rely on CTA to do their thinking for them.”

Watson said she learned about Proposition 74 through teachers lounge chatter. After researching the initiative, she decided to support it.

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“This is a really draining kind of job. You put so much of your heart and soul into it,” she said.

“I am exhausted every day. I see how after 30 years, somebody might want to give it up and [get lazy], but you better not be doing it with my tax dollars.”

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