Nan Austin

Teacher unions get the rights wrong on this one

Modesto teacher Lindsey Bird, seen in the wall projection, testifies at a hearing on AB 934 in Sacramento on June 29.
Modesto teacher Lindsey Bird, seen in the wall projection, testifies at a hearing on AB 934 in Sacramento on June 29. Teach Plus

A bill to raise teaching as a profession died in committee, speared by the very unions that profess to speak for all teachers. If those voices of solidarity were listening, they would hear the frustration of young teachers quitting the profession and mid-career veterans furious that going the extra mile gets them nowhere.

Assembly Bill 934, as written by former teacher Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, raised teacher evaluations to a higher bar and included effectiveness alongside seniority in layoff decisions. After amendments, it would have done neither. It came up for a critical vote June 29 so weakened that critics and supporters alike cheered when it failed.

Davis High teacher Lindsey Bird of Modesto was among those who testified against the gutted bill last week in Sacramento.

“A bill that doesn’t address teacher effectiveness or (last-in, first-out) is incomplete. The amended bill only addressed new teachers and ignored ineffective teachers that already have permanent status,” Bird said later. A teacher since 2004, Bird is among those mid-career veterans who wanted the original bill to pass.

The highlight of her day at the Capitol, she said, was hearing Vergara v California plaintiffs Julia Macias and Daniella Martinez, both 15, testify. The teens urged members of the committee to reject the watered-down AB 934 and instead pass legislation to end job entitlements they said most harm low-income, high minority schools.

Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu agreed with the plaintiffs’ assessment at trial, saying compelling evidence showed the effect of ineffective teachers on student learning. “There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms,” Treu wrote in a ruling that would have overturned laws mandating seniority-only layoffs, lengthy delays to dismiss teachers and two-year automatic tenure.

Unions see the case through an entirely different lens. In response to the Vergara trial win in 2014, the state’s most powerful teachers union characterized the lawsuit as a tactic to undermine strong educators.

“The very statutes challenged here are the ones that allow us to fight for our students and their needs without reprisal of those in power. The people behind this suit have chosen to scapegoat teachers in order to draw attention away from the real issues facing our schools and students,” said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association.

After winning spectacularly at trial, Vergara lost on appeal April 14 and is expected to head next to the California Supreme Court.

A prescient LA Times editorial after the recent loss opined that Treu went too far and praised the appellate review as more in line with constitutional norms. But with the lawsuit threat neutralized, the writer despaired, much needed reforms like AB 934 would have scant chance of passing.

Without legislative reforms, however, more lawsuits are likely. California’s teachers-only legal perspective has become a civil rights lightning rod in the eyes of advocates for minority and low-income students.

In his ruling, Treu urged the Capitol to take up the gauntlet he threw down. All the courts can do is strike down laws, abolishing longstanding protections. New laws could craft a compromise, incorporating due process for teachers facing dismissal with enforceable expectations for teacher competency.

“California students and teachers deserve real leadership on these issues,” said Ben Austin of Students Matter, the nonprofit behind the Vergara lawsuit.

The bill by Bonilla, who taught high school English, was hailed by children’s advocacy organizations like Students Matter as a fair balance. Seniority still counted but excellence did too. Where teachers failed to make the grade, it would have demanded coaching, supports and a guaranteed year to gain skills. To make sure evaluations were fair and competent, the principals who lead them would have to have evaluations and training, too.

Here is where AB 934 ran into opposition: If a year’s coaching and support did not help a teacher improve, dismissal for incompetence would follow, shrinking the often years-long process in place now.

Unions exist to protect members’ jobs and due process rights, and both CTA and the California Federation of Teachers virulently opposed the bill’s evaluation and effectiveness measures as an attack on those due process rights.

Experience counts in teaching, make no mistake. A recent study by the Learning Policy Institute found experienced teachers keep gaining skills, have a positive impact on peers and their students often improve in non-academic measures, like attendance.

“Although the steepest gains in effectiveness are in the first few years of teaching, this improvement continues in the second and often third decade of their careers, especially when they work in collegial work environments,” the summary concludes.

Saying there are continuing returns is a long way from saying time served should be the only criteria in matching teachers to classrooms. What existing laws protect are existing jobs, without regard to effect on kids or school communities.

The Vergara case was the first lawsuit to gain legal traction suggesting student needs matter, too, and that was the pivotal legal point that lost on appeal.