There is no reasonable explanation for why firing a teacher in California is such a time-consuming, tortuous and expensive procedure. Teachers who appeal their firing are entitled to a hearing before a panel composed of an administrative law judge and two teachers chosen especially for the case at hand. Appeals often drag on for years — during which the school district must pay the teachers’ salaries and benefits — and almost invariably favor the teachers. Because of lobbying by the teachers unions, a couple of bills to streamline the process, at least in some circumstances, never made it out of the last legislative session.
Now Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) is trying again. Unfortunately, as his last year’s effort did, SB 10 goes too far — and yet doesn’t go far enough.
Padilla’s bill would affect only teachers who have been accused of molestation or other grave misconduct. Their appeals would be limited to a hearing held solely by an administrative law judge, making the process quicker and more evenhanded. But the judge’s decision would be advisory; in other words, the district would have the power to fire without any meaningful appeal. That would be acceptable if it only affected teachers who had already been convicted of crimes, but it’s not enough protection for teachers who have merely been accused. Yes, the process for firing teachers should be shorter and much less costly than it is now, but that doesn’t mean teachers don’t deserve any due process.
At the same time, in making the process more efficient, there is no reason to limit reform to accused molesters. Any underperforming teacher — whether that teacher plays DVDs for students all day every day or ignores the curriculum or mistreats a student — should be subject to a reasonable dismissal procedure that’s fair to both the teacher and the school. The process should include a meaningful appeal to an independent party. That could be accomplished by having an administrative law judge render a final decision on appeals, or, as a New Jersey law signed this year requires, submitting contested firings to binding arbitration. The New Jersey system goes further, limiting the time and money that can be lavished on an appeal.
A school reform group has filed suit over California’s teacher firing laws, saying that they illegally deprive students of the high-quality education guaranteed by the state Constitution. We’re not convinced that the system is unconstitutional, but it does make for very bad education policy. The dysfunctional process benefits no one except bad teachers. The Legislature has been giving in to union resistance for far too long; it’s time to pass real yet reasonable reform.