Possible 2014 ballot fight over firing teachers, looser tenure rules

9:09 PM, Dec 17, 2013   |    comments
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After two years of bitter legislative fights over whether it's too hard to fire bad teachers in California, the debate could be headed to next November's statewide ballot.

Two separate initiatives have been filed to change the existing system for reprimanding or removing teachers, the most recent on Monday. Both appear inspired by the 2012 case of a Los Angeles area elementary school teacher who was sentenced last month to 25 years in prison for lewd acts against students over a six year period -- actions which, even when reported, failed to cost him his job.

"It's a broken and bureaucratic process," said Matt David, the political operative who filed the latest initiative.  David, a former top aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has recently worked as a consultant to education activist (and wife of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson) Michelle Rhee.

David said that neither Rhee nor other critics of the current teacher employment process have officially signed on to the measure, only that a "broad coalition" is looking at the issue.

The push for loosening the dismissal process for teachers gained national exposure last year, after a handful of Assembly Democrats abstained on a committee vote that doomed legislation by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima.  This year, a more toned down attempt -- Assembly Bill 375 by Asm. Joan Buchanan, D-Contra Costa County -- was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who wrote that it was a well-intentioned but "imperfect" proposal.

The two proposed initiatives both would make it easier to fire a teacher involved in serious or violent crimes.  The simplest of the two was filed in October by leaders of the nonprofit group EdVoice.  The organization's CEO, Bill Lucia, was unavailable for comment on Tuesday, but was recently quoted as saying the initiative would draw a "bright line" of punishment for the worst actions.

The newest initiative, though, goes much further by also abolishing much of the existing rules pertaining to teacher tenure. Proponent David says the measure would protect "great teachers," even if they are the newest arrivals.  The initiative would create a new performance standard to determine which teachers stay, and which ones go, in the event of layoffs.

That would line up with the stated goals of the nonproifit run by Michelle Rhee and advised by David, StudentsFirst.

California adopted teacher tenure as a law in 1921, the first state in the nation to do so.  The most recent electoral showdown over the law came in 2005 with Proposition 74, one of a package of government changes promoted by Gov. Schwarzenegger in a special election.

All four initiatives were rejected by voters in a campaign whose opposition was led by the powerful California Teachers Association.  CTA spokeswoman Claudia Briggs said Tuesday that the union hasn't yet closely reviewed either of the new initiatives, and therefore hasn't taken a position.

But it was CTA pressure that helped kill the first legislative effort to change the teacher firing law in 2012, and some believe a 2014 initiative fight could test the public image of the union.

"I think the people that may be trying to advance these types of initiatives also see a political opportunity: to put the teachers union on the wrong side of the voters," said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman.

Stutzman, who worked for Schwarzenegger during the failed 2005 effort, said the initiatives may also serve a more partisan political purpose -- to draw down CTA cash that would otherwise go to Democratic candidates in 2014.

"This would be, if this went to the ballot," said Stutzman, "tens of millions if not over $100 million spent by the teachers' union to try to stop it."

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.


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