Unions Oppose Seniority Reform Bill in California

Published May 8, 2010

A proposed education reform bill in California would make it easier for budget-strained school districts to retain their most effective teachers. The bill’s author also touts SB 955 as a step forward for civil rights.

SB 955 by State Senator Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) would give districts flexibility to decide teacher layoffs based on performance evaluations instead of continuing to rely on the decades-old “last-hired-first-fired” system that favors seniority over quality.

Huff notes his legislation has drawn bipartisan legislative support. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has also said he supports the bill.

Teachers Union Opposes

However, Huff’s bill has drawn sharp opposition from the California Teachers Association, which represents more than 340,000 teachers.

“My staff gets a lot of phone calls and stuff from the unions against me for introducing this bill, but we have half of our school districts in California with declining enrollment,” Huff said. “What the unions do not understand is even if we did not have this massive budget crisis, we would certainly want to make decisions to retain our best teachers.”  

He says he believes opponents of the bill do not have the best interest of students in mind.

“The unions are about protecting teacher jobs,” Huff said. “They say they are concerned about the student, but their responsibly first and foremost is to protect teacher jobs, which is why they are against SB 955.”

‘Quality-Blind’ System

Huff says the current education system is “quality-blind.”

“Teacher performance matters, and that is why I have gotten bipartisan support,” he said. “I give the few Democrats, who helped this bill make it through, much credit because it is more difficult for the Democrats to support this bill—it is really worrying the unions.”

‘Public Is Getting Fed Up’

Huff notes current firing and hiring practices for California’s teachers would never occur in the private sector.

“The public is getting fed up,” Huff said. “The [unions] should remember that small businesses lay off people who are not their best people, so it does make sense for us to do that in our K-12 education. We should keep the best, not fire them because they do not have seniority.”

Huff pointed to layoffs in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the district had to let go a Harvard-educated teacher and several “Teacher of the Year” awardees because of seniority rules. “My bill will get that changed somewhat,” Huff said.

Young, Enthusiastic Cast Off

Lance Izumi, director of education policy at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, predicted SB 955 would become law. He noted the present firing and hiring practices for teachers in California help keep incompetent teachers on the payroll while losing effective teachers.

“I think that anything that allows us to reduce the impact of seniority for who gets fired and who doesn’t, is good for our K-12 education system,” Izumi said. “Right now we are not laying off people based upon their effectiveness on the classroom.

“Some of the younger, enthusiastic, more effective teachers are getting fired instead of those who have secured seniority and are now just passing time waiting for their state pensions to kick in,” he explained.

“The teachers hiring and firing system is totally out of whack,” Izumi said. “You have teachers who are kept on the payroll for months—even years—despite the fact that serious criminal charges have been leveled against them because teacher union contracts make it near-impossible to get rid of them, too.”

Administrators’ Hands Tied

Camille Esch, director of the California Education Program at the New America Foundation, says the concept behind SB 955 is sound but the bill is no panacea because there are so many unwise regulations burdening the education system in the Golden State.

“Generally speaking, it makes sense to consider teachers’ effectiveness with students, when forced to make cuts,” Esch said. “Districts are scrambling to figure out what to cut” while doing the least amount of harm.

Esch notes districts are prevented from making some cuts that they would prefer, and thus have to cut programs they’d rather keep. “It is very, very confusing for districts to figure out how to make spending decisions because there are certain streams of money dedicated by law that are not even on table for possible cuts,” she explained.

“To some extent, all the teacher seniority firing rules, and all the similar rules, are tying the hands of district administrators,” Esch said.

‘A Civil Rights Issue’

Sen. Huff says the principle behind SB 955 is a civil rights issue.

“My bill will help low-income neighborhoods save their teachers and schools as many of California’s new schools and teachers are in low-income and minority neighborhoods.” Huff said. “This is one of the reasons why the NAACP supports this. They see it as a civil rights issue.”

Esch also notes the current seniority-based system is decimating low-income neighborhood schools. Most new public school teachers in California are in low-income neighborhoods, and union rules say they must be fired first.

“Entire schools [in these areas] are getting wiped out,” Esch said. “This has happened in Los Angeles, and it is a really destabilizing thing to happen, to have schools lose half their faculty. It is quite a blow.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.