Faced with the threat of a ballot initiative on teacher firings that could have placed it in the awkward position of publicly defending child molesters, the California Teachers Assn. agreed to a compromise: legislation to streamline the appeals process for teachers who are accused of such egregious misconduct.
The procedures outlined in the bill strike the right balance of providing teachers with due process to ensure that they have not been fired unfairly, while speeding up the process and making it far simpler and less expensive. Both education reformers and the powerful teachers union are behind the legislation, and Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated his support. That leaves just this question: Why not do the same for all teacher dismissals and not just those involving accusations of criminal behavior toward children?
Under current law, a teacher who has been fired can appeal to an ad hoc panel composed of an administrative law judge and two teachers. The rules involved in deciding which teachers can sit on a panel are so arcane that finding the right candidates can take months, and usually result in a group that is weighted in favor of the fired teacher. Because of administrative delays, dismissals often take well over a year to be completed.
Under the legislation, AB 215 by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo), the appeals of teachers who have been accused of molestation or other egregious misconduct would be heard solely by the administrative law judge and placed on a fast track. The bill also would streamline some of the procedures for other teacher dismissals, reducing paperwork and requiring that they be heard within six months, but would still require two teachers to sit on the appeals panels.
The issue of how difficult it can be to fire a teacher accused of molestation arose after the 2012 arrest of Mark Berndt, a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. Berndt was sentenced to 25 years in prison as a result of lewd acts against dozens of young students, which included feeding them semen from a spoon. The Los Angeles Unified School District moved to fire him shortly after his arrest, but ultimately paid him $40,000 to drop his appeal of the dismissal.
The horrific nature of the case drew public outcry and gave impetus to various attempts at a political fix. Buchanan’s bill is certainly an improvement over the current system, but it is too narrow. For teachers who are dismissed for being inept or uncaring, rather than for outrageous criminal behavior, it would still take time to find the required teachers for the panels, and the panels would still be weighted in favor of the fired teachers. AB 215 is a good start, not a solution.