Capitol Journal: This lawmaker learned to revere education after her parents fled Jim Crow. Now she’s tackling teacher tenure

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, right, at a joint session of the California Legislature for Gov. Jerry Brown's State of the State speech Jan. 21 in Sacramento.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s father moved his family from Hope, Ark., to Los Angeles when she was 3. He had a compelling reason: A lynch mob was chasing him.

David Nash was a black farmer. He worked his own land and sharecropped other people’s. After one harvest, he got into an argument with white operators of a weigh station about the size of his crop.

“You couldn’t argue with them,” Weber says. “To argue with them was to call them a liar. They got very angry and wanted him made an example. They came to lynch my father, but a relative sneaked him out of town in the dead of night.”

In today’s world, that may seem unbelievable. But in 1951 in the segregated South — years before integrated schools, lunch counters and restrooms — it was scary reality.

“My father decided it best to come to California,” Weber says.


The Nash family moved to South L.A. He got a steel mill job. There were eight kids.

“We were very poor, so poor that we had holes in the bottoms of our shoes by springtime,” Weber wrote in a Times op-ed piece praising her father in 1994. “We lived in the projects of Los Angeles. Our daily meals were beans, greens and cornbread. Yet we were rich in pride, confidence and love.”

Her father’s schooling ended after the sixth grade.

“There was one little schoolhouse with minimum instruction,” Weber told me. “My mother was allowed to go to the ninth grade. But for the boys, it was like: ‘What’s he going to do the rest of his life? This Negro doesn’t need a lot of things. Get that big boy and bring him out to work.’

“That’s why my dad had such a burning desire for his children to go to school.”

In her 1994 Times op-ed, Weber wrote: “Dad knew what racism had denied him…. Therefore, he preached education to us day and night. When I was a little girl, Daddy told me that he would ‘drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log’ if I wanted to go to school.”

Weber finished high school at the top of her class. She earned three university degrees — bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate — from UCLA. In those days, tuition didn’t exist or was chump change.

Professor Weber taught African American studies at San Diego State University for 40 years. She served on the San Diego Board of Education for eight. And in 2012, the Democrat was elected to the state Assembly from San Diego. She’s 68.

Unlike her parents, Weber grew up without Jim Crow harassment. But she witnessed racial discrimination on the family’s occasional trips back to Arkansas to visit relatives.

“Every time we went back, there was some altercation,” she says. “My father would never go in a restaurant and sit in the back. He never allowed us to say ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir.’”

Weber inherited her father’s tenacity and independence, as well as his reverence for education.

She’s not afraid to buck the Democratic establishment. And she is bucking it now over the contentious issue of teacher tenure.

Weber is pushing a bill, AB 1220, that would extend a new teacher’s probationary period from two years to at least three and possibly up to five. Currently, a school must decide whether to grant permanent status — tenure — or cut the teacher loose after two years.

Weber’s bill would allow the school three years for teacher evaluation. It could extend probation another year or two, but would have to provide the teacher professional help, such as a mentor.

“Most states have probationary periods of three to five years,” Weber says. “It gives teachers a second chance to grow and get better. The time frame now is impractical. It’s kind of a crapshoot.”

The teachers unions object. They want tenure to be granted after two years to solidify the job. But they don’t always put it that way.

Updates from Sacramento »

The California Teachers Assn. characterizes Weber’s bill as another slap at the profession.

“Teaching is a calling, but if we keep attacking the profession with proposals like AB 1220, who will answer the call?” the CTA stated in a letter of opposition.

“AB 1220 treats the symptoms rather than the disease. Legislators should be focused on reducing class sizes, bringing music and counseling back into our schools and providing assistance and support for students.”

Sure. But all those good things were supposed to have been financed by the union-backed ballot measure that extended the highest-in-the-nation income tax rates. Voters approved it in November.

The union is a huge political player with hefty campaign bankrolls. It exerts strong influence over Democratic legislators. Not so much over Weber, though.

Weber’s bill recently cleared its first hurdle, the Assembly Education Committee. But it faces a rocky path ahead.

“I’m not wedded to two years, but five years is too long,” says Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), a former high school teacher. He voted against the bill.

“This is an act to keep poor performing teachers in the classroom,” O’Donnell contends. “I don’t want my kids in a classroom with a teacher who has been struggling for five years.”

This should be an easy compromise: Three years’ probation, plus a fourth if needed.

Thanks to a southern lynch mob, Weber is a Californian trying to push her party into doing what’s right for students and teachers alike.

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