Bill to Reform California Teacher Tenure Rules Defeated in Committee

Published August 4, 2016

A California bill that would reform the state’s teacher tenure process was defeated after failing to get enough votes while in the state’s Senate Education Committee.

As originally written, Assembly Bill 934, called the California INVESTs in Education Act, would have mandated stricter consequences for poorly performing teachers and limited the influence of seniority on the firing process.

Under the first version of AB 934, underperforming teachers, regardless of seniority, would have been granted one year of additional professional support and then fired through an expedited process if performance did not improve. The bill also would have mandated tenured teachers with two or more poor reviews be laid off before new, adequately performing teachers and have required teachers to be on probation for three years, instead of just two, before being eligible for tenure.

Addressing ‘Vergara’ Issues

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), who introduced AB 934 earlier in 2016, said she hoped it would put an end to the concerns raised by Vergara v. California, which has been making its way through the California court system since 2012 and is currently being considered by the state Supreme Court.

The Vergara plaintiffs, represented by the advocacy group Students Matter, are asking the court to strike down three laws: the permanent employment statute requiring administrators to grant or deny teachers tenure after 18 months or fewer; dismissal statutes that make it very difficult to fire unsatisfactory teachers; and the “last in, first out” statute that bases layoffs on seniority rather than teacher performance.

School reformers generally support the Vergara lawsuit.

A ‘Watered-Down’ Bill

A statement on Bonilla’s website says the assemblywoman had narrowed the scope of her bill “as a result of the onslaught of opposition from both sides—the teacher unions and education reform groups.”

Bonilla stripped from the final version of AB 934 a provision removing rules known as “dismissal protections,” which make it difficult and expensive to fire teachers. Bonilla also removed the mandate to lay off poorly performing teachers first, regardless of seniority.

Ben Austin, the policy and advocacy director of Students Matter, wrote in an LA School Report op-ed the new version of AB 934 was “watered down and gutted beyond recognition.” Students Matter published on its website a chart depicting the bill before and after Bonilla’s amendments, calling AB 934 “a bad deal for California students.”

The California Teachers Association, a teachers union, also opposed the bill, stating in a blog post on its website AB 934 “would in [sic] line with the agenda of corporate millionaires and special interests do [sic] away with statutes protecting teachers from arbitrary firings, providing transparency in layoff decisions, and supporting due-process rights. The bill would negatively impact [sic] on student learning.”

AB 934 failed to gain approval from the Senate Education Committee in June in a 5–2 vote.

No ‘Adequate Teacher Support’

Bonilla says her bill would have been good for the state’s teachers.

“I am a teacher myself,” Bonilla said. “The problem is that there is not adequate teacher support at the beginning of the career. I firmly believe that expanding the length of probation is effective only if you are effectively mentoring and coaching. The most important thing when improving public education is to support your teachers.”

Teachers Union in Control

Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, says the teachers union controls much of the state’s education legislation.

“Very simply, the biggest political spender in the state, by far, is the California Teachers Association,” Sand said. “They pretty much own the State Legislature. Not for nothing does [the union] consider itself the fourth coequal branch of government. That’s why the only real reform happens via litigation and occasionally by [ballot] initiative.

“What legislators must always remember is that education is first and foremost about the children,” said Sand. “Too often, it has become about teachers and their ‘rights,’ frequently as defined by the teachers unions.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.