California Law Changes the Rules for Bad Teachers

Published November 1, 2006

It can take years to fire a bad teacher. So some principals don’t even bother trying.

Instead, they make a deal. The principal asks the teacher to look for a job elsewhere in the district. In exchange, the teacher gets a good evaluation.

Now here’s the rub. Since there’s plenty of competition for plum jobs at affluent schools, the bad teacher gets funneled to a struggling school serving a needy population.

School administrators call it the “dance of the lemons,” and it’s surprisingly common. More than a quarter of the principals surveyed in San Diego Unified School District, for instance, admitted to coaxing an underperforming teacher to transfer elsewhere, according to a national study released last year by the New Teacher Project, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

A whopping 47 percent confessed they had hidden vacancies to avoid accepting such teachers. Meanwhile, 65 percent of the district’s schools had no choice, or limited choice, in filling at least one position.

New legislation could change that in California. Senate Bill 1655–which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed into law on September 28–is the first in the nation to alter union contracts that protect experienced teachers but don’t give low-performing schools enough freedom to hire the people they want.

Right of Refusal

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Jack Scott (D-Pasadena), helps districts snag promising new teachers early in the year. It also gives struggling schools the right to refuse bad teachers whose seniority otherwise might guarantee them a spot on the faculty.

“I think this is very, very much a precedent-setter,” said Michelle Rhee, chief executive officer of the New Teacher Project. “This could have a positive impact, not only in California, but nationwide.”

The bill sailed through the Democrat-dominated Senate and Legislature with enormous majorities, despite opposition from two party allies: the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers.

Majority of Minorities

Several groups representing low-income and minority communities supported the bill–a factor that won over legislators despite union opposition, said Russlynn Ali, director of the advocacy group Education Trust-West.

“That’s really unprecedented, isn’t it?” Ali said. “You had a group of advocates that represent poor kids and kids of color saying, ‘Enough is enough. We’ve got to make some headway on closing the teacher quality gap.'”

The law contains the seeds of dramatic change. For one, all districts will be allowed to hire new candidates as early as mid-April without considering their seniority.

Currently, many urban districts must give their tenured teachers the first crack at vacancies well into the summer. By that point, many of the best novices have received job offers from suburban districts with less-restrictive contracts, proponents say.

Left Hanging

In a 2003 survey of four urban districts nationwide, the New Teacher Project found aggressive recruitment yielded a glut of job applicants from outside the district–many of them new teachers who wanted to work with low-income students but “were left hanging in limbo for months.” Between 31 percent and 60 percent withdrew their applications and went elsewhere, the majority citing the late hiring cycle as a cause.

“The longer you wait, the poorer the quality of the pool is,” Scott said. “The suburban schools really are able to pick off better candidates.”

The law also gives principals in very low-performing schools–schools ranked 1, 2 or 3 on the state’s 10-point scale–the ability to turn down teachers who want to transfer from elsewhere in the district.

Not all teachers who want to switch schools are lemons, to be sure. “But when you are a school that is low-performing and you are trying everything you can possibly try, you need to be able to build a staff that will work well together,” said Vernon Renwanz, principal of Creekside Elementary in north Stockton.

Teamwork Essential

Over the past six years, Creekside, a high-poverty school, has seen a steady rise in test scores. Renwanz credits his teachers’ willingness to work together on schoolwide reforms. It’s hard, he said, when the union contract forces him to accept a teacher who isn’t interested in change.

“If you have someone who’s uncooperative, it makes everyone uneasy,” Renwanz said. “It doesn’t promote the good teamwork that is essential for good performance.”

Not everyone is a fan of the legislation. Barbara Kerr, president of the CTA, called it “premature and unnecessary,” saying it would keep veteran teachers out of needy schools that disproportionately lack experienced faculty.

“The idea that a school administrator would have the power to block transfers of highly qualified and senior teachers–that’s very troubling, since many of those schools need experienced teachers,” Kerr said.

Kerr said a CTA-sponsored bill–Senate Bill 1133–would do more to get veterans into those schools by offering incentives such as smaller class sizes.

Even proponents of Scott’s bill acknowledge it’s no panacea. The legislation deals only with teachers who seek to switch schools. Teachers who lose their jobs involuntarily–say, because the district closed their school–may still be given priority in hiring at any time and placed at schools over a principal’s objections.

No ‘Magic Bullet’

As for delays in hiring, the law won’t do anything to speed up districts that are mired in inefficiency.

“I can’t make bureaucracies more effective,” Scott said. “This is not a magic bullet that will solve every problem. … But this allows students to get the best teacher, not the teacher who has been subtly forced out of another school.”

No analysis exists showing how many districts will be affected. But large, urban districts such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and Fresno will see changes in some of the hiring policies spelled out in union contracts, Rhee said.

Locally, both Sacramento City Unified and San Juan Unified school districts have teacher labor contracts providing schools limited choice in hiring, with some priority given to candidates with experience in the district. The new law allows those provisions to last only until April each year. The legislation takes effect as existing union contracts expire.

This story originally appeared in the September 25 edition of the Sacramento Bee. Modified to reflect recent events and reprinted with permission.