California Continues Struggle with Teacher Tenure, Evaluations


State attorneys and California's strong teachers unions say that the watershed California teacher tenure case, Vergara v. State of California, was flawed and should be dismissed based on lack of evidence that the disputed statutes were the reason for educational inequalities.

Christine Armario of the Associated Press writes that attorneys for the state, the California Teachers Association, and the California Federation of Teachers, in filings presented to the state's Second District Court of Appeal, state that there was "no legal or factual justification" for dismissing state laws on tenure and job protection.

"This suit was never about helping students," CTA President Dean E. Vogel said a statement after the filing. "As educators we believe every student has the right to a caring, qualified and committed teacher and that is why we are appealing the judge's misguided decision."

The ruling in June 2014 by Judge Rolf M. Treu found five California Education Code provisions, which included policies allowing teachers to receive tenure after two years and the dismissal of teachers during layoffs based on seniority, to be unconstitutional. The decision was based on the policies taking away some of the state's 6.2 million students' chances of receiving a quality education. The judge added that in most cases it was poor and minority students who were most affected by the statutes, a fact which "shocks the conscience."

Nine public school students, including Beatriz Vergara, filed the suit with the backing of Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch's nonprofit Students Matter. The group stated that the state and teachers unions "recycle the same flawed arguments."

"We look forward to responding to the arguments presented in these briefs, and are confident that the appellate courts will affirm the Vergara judgment and protect the constitutional rights of California's students," said Cynara Lilly, a spokeswoman for the group.

State attorneys, in appeal briefs, argued that there was no evidence brought forth at trial that any of the statutes caused any student to be assigned a particular teacher. They added that evidence presented in the case was anecdotal for the most part and included a small group of of districts which had failed to identify the most ineffective teachers over a two-year probationary period. The attorneys contended that "no statutory scheme will eliminate all perceived educational disparities."

The teachers unions stated that during the two-month-long trial, the plaintiffs never produced even one student who had been harmed by the laws that were in place. In fact, teachers, administrators, school board members, superintendents, and education experts offered many examples of how the statutes helped and are still helping millions of students in the state. The LA School Report writes that the expensive attorneys hired by Welch obscured the real problems with public education, which the unions say can be solved by restoring funding programs that ensure the success of students.

Assemblywoman Catherine Baker (R-Dublin) introduced Assembly Bill 1044, which would have done away with the last-in-first-out policy stating that seniority cannot be the only factor which determines layoffs, but was shelved by the committee. Jeremy B. White, reporting for The Sacramento Bee, writes that AB 1248, sponsored by Assemblyman Rocky Chávez (R-Oceanside) would have changed the time required for teachers to receive tenure from two years to three and would allow administrators to revoke tenure for those with consecutive poor performance reviews. This bill was also axed.

"These changes would make education an incredibly insecure profession and would essentially do away with due process," said Seth Bramble, a CTA lobbyist. On a 4-3 vote, the committee sent the bill to interim study, essentially stalling it.

Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen (R-Riverbank) introduced legislation which would increase the number of ratings teachers could be assigned and would require that part of a teachers evaluation would be based on student test scores. This bill was sidetracked to interim study as well.

Shirley Weber (D-District 79) introduced a bill to add a new category to California teacher evaluation forms called "needs improvement." She also wants to have only two choices on the form "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory." The goal is to ensure that teachers who need training in order to be effective in class would get that training. She would like to require that funds be available to train teachers in need of improvement. Weber also wants to require that teacher evaluations be based in part on their students' academic growth. Weber's Democratic colleagues would not let the bill out of the education committee.

Assembly Education committee chair Patrick O'Donnell (D-District 70) is considering using Weber's idea of "needs improvement" as an evaluation marker in his own teacher evaluation bill — and Weber took serious offense.

"You're gonna rape me, rape my bill and take it as your own?" she said, incredulously. "After the work we've done, without my name on it? I'm not having that. You may do it, but you will not do it without my permission."

Recent reforms and the public's changing opinions about teachers unions has caused legislators in the same party to have political spats, which is unusual in the halls of the California Assembly.

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