Capitol Journal: Assemblywoman Bonilla, a former teacher, takes on the powerful union


School reformers keep suffering setbacks in California — first in court, now in the Legislature.

In Sacramento, the California Teachers Assn. — arguably the most powerful labor union in the state — is practically unbeatable because of its ability to spend millions supporting or opposing a legislative candidate. It’s an intimidating force.

Reformers — those trying to make it easier to fire bad teachers and retain good ones — were jubilant when a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge in 2014 threw out tenure and other job protections.


Judge Rolf Treu agreed with plaintiffs in Vergara vs. California that several key teacher protections, including a “last hired, first fired” provision during layoffs, were so harmful to students the children were deprived of their constitutional right to a quality education. That was especially true, he said, in schools serving poor families where recruitment of good teachers is difficult.

But in April, a state appeals court agreed with the CTA and threw out the lower court ruling. The reform group Students Matter appealed to the state Supreme Court, which will decide this summer whether to take up the case.

Meanwhile, in the Legislature, a former high school English teacher introduced a bill that included many of the provisions sought by Students Matter and the Vergara plaintiffs.

Last week, however, the measure was substantially watered down by the author, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), under pressure from the teachers union. She had no choice if any of her proposal was to survive.

In its original form, the measure would have reduced the importance of teacher seniority in layoffs. Cumbersome procedures that were required for firing an ineffective teacher would have been scrapped in favor of binding arbitration.

All that got scrubbed. What remains is mere authorization for school districts and local unions to negotiate new dismissal procedures. Now the procedures are set by state law.


But another key provision of the bill, Bonilla’s top priority, does remain. It would increase a teacher’s probationary period from two to three years. Only after that could permanent status — tenure — be granted.

Actually, the current probationary period isn’t even two years. A school district must decide by March of the teacher’s second year whether to award tenure.

Under the bill, coaching by a peer would be required for each teacher in the third year, as it is now in the first two.

Also, new administrators would be closely monitored and mentored.

This is one of those bills that doesn’t exactly fit the textbook example of how to make a law. It’s a “gut and amend” measure that passed its original house in a completely different form, then was stripped and reshaped.

Union opposition has been so tough that the bill hasn’t even had a committee hearing. And the deadline for that is the end of this week.

So the measure’s first test will come in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Bonilla is lobbying hard, but she isn’t sure she has enough votes.

The CTA remains adamantly opposed. And, paradoxically, so now is the union’s adversary, Students Matter. The reform group withdrew its support after Bonilla narrowed the measure’s scope.

CTA President Eric Heins, a Contra Costa County elementary school teacher, says “extending the probation period is wrongheaded in the current climate of teacher shortage.” He notes that during probation, a teacher can be fired “at will” without due process.

Also, he argues, new dismissal procedures for tenured teachers shouldn’t be negotiated because the Legislature last year streamlined the current rules. Give them a chance to work, he says.

The reform group, however, contends the amended bill has no redeeming value.

“Negotiating doesn’t help kids in districts where the board and union don’t get along,” says Ben Austin, policy director for Students Matter. “And simply moving tenure to after three years, and then there’s lifetime employment, is harmful to kids. This is a joke. It creates the illusion of change.”

He calls the bill “the poster child for the kind of transactional politics we’re seeing rejected all over America.”

It’s the politics of attempted compromise based on reality.

“One side, the CTA, refuses to consider any change, anything reasonable,” Bonilla says. “The other side says, ‘If we’re not going to get exactly what we want, we’re going to attack.’

“I’m trying to find a middle way. I’m disappointed the bill isn’t as sweeping as I had hoped, but it’s still a direct challenge to the status quo and the teachers union in Sacramento. And when a bill dies in committee, it does zero.”

Ironically, last year the CTA spent a small fortune trying to elect Bonilla to the state Senate. She was defeated by moderate Democrat Steve Glazer, who had previously crossed the teachers union. It was seeking revenge.

Bonilla says the appellate ruling in the Vergara case is what crippled her original bill. If the lower court ruling had held, the Legislature would have been forced to change teacher firing procedures and the “last hired, first fired” rule.

“If the Vergara ruling had gone in another direction, it would have had a dramatic influence in helping my bill pass,” she says. “I lost all my leverage, except my leverage of passion as a teacher who’s trying to raise the bar of the profession.”

Bonilla’s bill is a worthwhile step and better than nothing. She’ll be fortunate to get that. And so will public school parents.

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