New California Teacher-Transfer Law Has Benefits, But Ambiguities as Well

Published March 1, 2007

Teachers unions and school administrators might agree that nothing affects students’ achievement more than the quality of their teachers. Yet unions and administrators widely disagree on which teachers are most qualified and which ones should be given priority when applying for a position in the classroom.

Unionized teachers at public schools are permitted by law to negotiate, through their unions, the wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of their employment. As a result, nearly every collective bargaining agreement between a teachers union and a public school covers voluntary transfers.

Under these agreements, teachers seeking voluntary transfers are often given preference based on seniority. Consequently, schools may bypass less senior but otherwise qualified teachers.

A new California state law, S.B. 1655, which took effect on January 1, limits schools’ ability to favor teachers based solely on seniority in voluntary transfers. It also allows principals of low-performing schools to reject teachers seeking transfers.

S.B. 1655 prohibits school districts from giving priority over other qualified applicants to senior teachers who request to be transferred after April 15 in the school year preceding that in which the transfer would take place. It also allows principals of schools ranked 1-3 (on a scale of 1-10) on the Academic Performance Index to reject the voluntary transfer of individual teachers into their school.

Level Field

State Sen. Jack Scott (D-Pasadena) introduced the bill, explaining in a November 15, 2006 Education Week commentary that it was not meant “to cheapen the value placed on teacher’s experience,” but that teachers should not be selected “on the basis of a blind calculation of seniority, but on the basis of their unique skills and knowledge.”

The California Teachers Association (CTA) opposed the bill, saying the measure would make it more difficult for low-achieving schools to attract and keep highly qualified teachers.

The law does not restrict teacher retention, and supporters note that limitations on a teacher’s ability to transfer voluntarily should help, not hurt, a school’s ability to keep experienced, highly qualified teachers.

Nor should the measure keep them from applying for voluntary transfers, the law’s supporters note. Experienced teachers may be given preference before April 15 of each school year, regardless of their qualifications. After April 15, experienced teachers will not be disadvantaged when applying for voluntary transfers. They will simply have to compete against “other qualified applicants” without receiving preferential treatment.

Principals’ Authority

CTA also said the bill would give “administrators the authority to block the transfers of teachers wishing to work in schools with high percentages of low-income and minority students.” Supporters counter that allowing principals in low-performing schools to reject teachers seeking voluntary transfers allows principals to consider the students’ needs, not just the teacher’s seniority.

In the case of a teacher seeking a voluntary transfer to a school that is not low-performing, seniority may be a determining factor prior to April 15 of each school year. After that, state law, not an administrator, forbids basing a decision solely on seniority.

Despite opposition from the teachers unions, the bill passed with support from a coalition of organizations representing low-income and minority communities. The new law took effect on January 1, but it allows clauses in existing contracts that conflict with it to remain in effect until the contract expires.

Blunted Impact

The new law applies only to teachers seeking to move from one school to another. It will have no effect on a teacher’s ability to seek reassignment within a school.

In addition, the statute applies only to public schools. If a private or independent school has more than one campus, the law would not prevent seniority from being the sole factor when considering a transfer.

The new law is not entirely clear on whether seniority can be a factor at all after April 15. It prohibits a contract from giving “priority over other qualified applicants” to a teacher based on seniority after April 15–leaving administrators to wonder whether “priority” means seniority cannot be the sole factor or cannot be considered at all.

Michael Blacher ([email protected]) is an associate with Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, a California-based law firm that represents public and private schools.