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Gender-neutral bathrooms, high-quality ethnic studies class and other changes coming to California schools

Anyone looking for confirmation of the nation's cultural divide can add education and gender-neutral bathrooms to the list of proof points.

North Carolina sparked a national furor by requiring transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates, citing risks to children in schools as a primary justification. California has been shifting the other way with little fanfare.

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A gender-neutral bathroom law, Assembly Bill 1732, was one of many measures with an effect on education that Gov. Jerry Brown signed during the legislative session that ended Friday.

Starting next March, any one-toilet bathroom in a California school — or in any other government building, public place or business — will  have to be designated as all-gender, open to anyone.

"That's a real big one," said Eric Bakke, interim co-director of government relations for the Los Angeles Unified School District, of the gender-neutral bathroom law.

It's also pretty simple to accomplish, Bakke said. "If you already have a single-user toilet facility, all you have to do is change the sign."

At a typical school, the greatest effect might be on faculty bathrooms, which often have one commode — and typically have been  designated for use solely by men or by women.

L.A. Unified already has started to go beyond the new state law. Last spring, at the Santee Education Complex, a high school south of downtown, it designated a multi-stall bathroom gender-neutral.

Bakke said L.A. Unified also was pleased with the passage of Assembly Bill 1593, which will allow immigrant students to receive excused absences when they attend their naturalization ceremonies to become U.S. citizens. That sort of law hardly seems needed in California — or at least in liberal-leaning Los Angeles — but might be controversial in places with different attitudes toward immigrants.

One new law is designed to make it easier for high school students to enroll in a high-quality ethnic studies class. Another helps high school students earn credit for community college and meet graduation requirements through classes that provide career training. Lawmakers tried to address the shortage of instructors in parts of the state by making it easier for those trained to work with English learners to qualify to work in California.

What didn't happen on the education front this year also was noteworthy.

Some people involved in educational issues expected 2016 to be a year of contention over how best to reshape traditional teacher job protections, such as tenure and layoffs in order of seniority. A court verdict had wiped out these protections, and, had it been upheld, the Legislature would have been forced to reshape these rules. Instead, an appeals court overturned the ruling, and the Legislature accepted the status quo for now. To do otherwise would have risked a battle with the powerful California Teachers Assn.

An attempt to strengthen the state's school-accountability system, favored by some reformers, also encountered a roadblock. Assembly Bill 2548 sought to align the federal and state systems for rating schools, said Bill Lucia, president and chief executive of the advocacy organization EdVoice. The bill also listed guidelines for a school-rating formula that would be more rigorous and more accessible to parents and educators, Lucia said.

Not needed, said Brown, who used his veto pen.

Another failed effort to improve accountability focused on charter schools, which are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional public schools.

Some school districts and unions backed Assembly Bill 709, which would have made charter schools abide more strictly to laws that govern public records, financial disclosures and open meetings.

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"While I support transparency," Brown wrote in his veto message, "this bill goes further than simply addressing issues of potential conflicts of interest and goes too far."

Although closely allied with Brown, California Teachers Assn. president Eric Heins strongly objected to the veto, citing "all the reports showing fraud, waste, mismanagement and unequal access to students."

The California Charter School Assn., also a powerful lobbying force, said it favored openness but opposed the particular bill.

Overall, charter backers defeated "a suite of bills that would have imposed major barriers to success on the charter sector," said association president Jed Wallace.

But the association fell short on one of its major legislative goals, Assembly Bill 1198 — which Brown vetoed.

It aimed to provide more affordable financing rates for charters trying to build schools.

Twitter: @howardblume

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