Faster firings in ‘egregious’ cases

Kathy Baron provided reporting from Sacramento for this post.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to make it quicker and cheaper to suspend and fire teachers facing a narrow range of “egregious” misconduct charges that include sex, drugs, and violence. In doing so, they disregarded calls from the mayor of Los Angeles and superintendents of Fresno and Los Angeles Unified to go further, by also making it easier to dismiss incompetent teachers.

“It matters that this state put a stake in the ground” on the issue, said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, in supporting SB 1059, sponsored by Senate minority leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, giving school boards the final say over all dismissals. Deasy and Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson called for eliminating the Commission on Professional Competence – a three-member appeals board that contains two teachers – which they said adds an expensive and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle to firing teachers who behave badly and perform poorly. The Commission would be replaced with an administrative law judge, giving only advisory opinions to the local school board.

But Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), who chairs the Education Committee, said it was “premature” to change the piece of the dismissal law dealing with unsatisfactory performance, because the Legislature has yet to create a teacher evaluation bill that defines satisfactory performance, with support systems to help teachers meet that standard.

Instead, Lowenthal and other members backed a more restrictive bill, SB 1530, by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles. It too would replace the appeals board with an administrative judge, but only in those cases involving sexual misconduct, drugs, and violence by teachers against children. (Huff, in a comparison of the two bills, claims that Padilla’s would prevent dealing expeditiously with some recent incidents of abuse: using racial epithets, locking children in a closet and taping a child’s mouth shut for talking too much).

Padilla’s and Huff’s bills were partly a response to community outrage following criminal charges of sexual abuse against students by three former teachers at Miramonte Elementary in Los Angeles Unified. In two of the cases, the district failed to document and follow up on earlier investigations of suspected illegal acts.

Padilla’s bill would make it easier to suspend a teacher facing “serious and egregious” charges without pay; it would remove the ban in current law against filing dismissal charges during the summer, and it would remove the current prohibition on using evidence of similar violations that’s more than four years old against a teacher. In the Miramonte case of the worst alleged molester, the district paid Mark Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to get him to drop the appeal of his firing. Berndt is facing 23 counts of lewd acts against children ages 7 to 10.

Saying that the average teacher dismissal case (not just for alleged misconduct) costs Los Angeles Unified $300,000, Deasy called Padilla’s bill “about-time legislation” to enable the district to deal quickly with teachers “who violate sacred trust.”

Los Angeles Unified board member Nury Martinez said the bill would fix an “antiquated” part of the education code that “ties our hands when we need to reassure parents with decisive action.”

“This is about extreme cases where a trusted employee has engaged in unspeakable behavior involving a child and we have to act,” she said.

The California Teachers Association and other unions, however, denied that any changes in law were needed, called both the Huff and Padilla bills assaults on teachers’ rights and little more than grandstanding.

“There are already very clear, very strict guidelines in the education code that give districts immediate authority to protect students and ensure that teachers who engage in that kind of serious sexual misconduct or immoral conduct are immediately removed from the classroom,” said CTA lobbyist Patricia Rucker.

But the Stull Act, which Gov. Ronald Reagan signed in 1971, also protects teachers with due process rights that should not be taken lightly, she said. What’s more, Rucker said the Padilla bill could backfire. Before the Stull Act created an objective commission, peer reviews would sustain slightly more than one third of dismissal decisions by school boards, she said. Since then, with the weight of the commission behind dismissals, Superior Courts uphold seven out of nine firings, she said.

Hanson and Deasy, however, indicated that those statistics are misleading, because most cases involving misconduct charges fall by the wayside – and not for lack of merit. Deasy said that since 2003, 667 cases involving charges of serious misconduct were brought forward  in California; of those only 129 went to a hearing, with 82 resulting in dismissal.   “This does not pass a reasonable smell test.”

Assault on due process

Ken Tray, political director of United Educators of San Francisco and a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, called SB 1530 “an attack on educators of California.”

“Sometimes politicians have to stand up for what is truthful, what is right, and what is good. Teachers are under attack,” Tray said.  “And one of the ways to defend the people, the over overwhelming number of my colleagues who are the most highly moral and conscientious of California’s public servants is to defend their due process, so that justice is served.”

Padilla disputed that  the bill would deny teachers due process. They could still request a hearing by an independent arbiter and present their own defense with an attorney and witnesses and the right of disclosure. It would not make teachers “at-will employees,” as the unions claimed. Teachers would retain their right to appeal decisions in Superior Court.

The bill is needed, he said, because appeals can be lengthy and onerous.

Hours after the Senate Education Committee acted, members of the Assembly Education Committee were even less included to change the current law. They stripped a parallel version of the Huff bill, AB 2028, sponsored Republican Steve Knight of the Antelope Valley, of all but two provisions. As amended,  it would remove the four-year limitation for using evidence of prior allegations, and it allow the dismissal process to begin during summer.

That didn’t discourage Knight from proclaiming victory in a press release. “Parents and students across the state are cheering today’s bipartisan vote to enact these important reforms to protect our kids from classroom predators,” he said.  “This is just the first of many steps that must be taken to enact these much-needed reforms and prevent a Miramonte-like tragedy from ever happening again.”

Kirst, Rucker nominations in flux

Senate Republicans are threatening to hold up or block the nominations of State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and board member Patricia Rucker. They have become bargaining chips for reasons that Republicans have not explained.

Kirst, a Stanford emeritus professor of education who served as State Board President under Gov. Jerry Brown in the ‘70s, and Rucker, a lobbyist with the California Teachers Assn., were among the seven Brown nominees who were endorsed Wednesday by the five-member Senate Rules Committee. But both Republicans on the committee, Sens. Tom Harman and Jean Fuller, abstained from voting on Kirst and Rucker while joining Democrats to unanimously approve the other five nominees: Trish Williams, Carl Cohn, Aida Molina, James Ramos, and Ilene Straus.

The full Senate will vote on the five nominees before the end of the legislative session next week. But the nominations of Kirst and Rucker are up in the air. State Board nominees need a two-thirds majority for confirmation, and Republicans have the numbers to block them. Speaking before the Rules Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Bob Huff, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, indicated that might happen while at the same time expressing hope it could be avoided. He implied that the unstated objections were legislative and policy-based and not related to Kirst’s or Rucker’s qualifications.

While acknowledging members of the Caucus had “a good conversation” with Kirst, Huff said, “we still have questions to be answered” and urged that votes on Kirst and Rucker be delayed until January “without prejudice.” Doing so, however, would be problematic. Brown nominated them to four-year terms in early January, and they can serve no more than a year before they must be confirmed. With the Legislature adjourning next week until January, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he wanted to bring the nominations before the Senate within days. But Huff said what he wanted might take longer, perhaps including new policies by the State Board.

Open Enrollment at issue

Huff is a big proponent of the state’s 18-month-old Open Enrollment Act, giving students in low-performing schools the right to attend higher achieving schools in other districts, and he is apparently upset by what he considers efforts of the Legislature and the State Board  to weaken the law. Two Senate aides in the know I spoke with surmised he was using the nominations to get Brown’s attention on the issue.

The Open Enrollment Act was sponsored by former Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero to strengthen the state’s application to Race to the Top. As with its policy cousin, the Parent Trigger, there are problems with the law’s drafting. It was designed to liberate students in  the lowest performing 1,000 schools – about the lowest 10 percent. But some schools with relatively high API scores – even above 800 – have been on the list due to problems with the formula. They have to notify parents that, in effect, their children are attending failing schools. ***

As a result, 96 schools that feel they shouldn’t be included have appealed to the State Board, and all have gotten waivers, according to an analysis of AB 47, another cause of Huff’s displeasure. Sponsored by Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Marin County, the bill would exclude schools with at least a 700 API or those that have increased API scores by at least 50 points in the prior year and would add in about 100 of the lowest performing charter schools. The 1,000 schools would not be a hard number but a ceiling, with a lower number on the list possible. AB47 now awaits a final vote in the Senate,

Huff and Republicans may view the nominations as leverage with Brown on a bunch of issues, but my guess is that Open Enrollment is high up there.

As an employee of the CTA, which is allied closely with Democrats and was Brown’s biggest financial backer, Rucker would seem a likely target of Republicans. But there has traditionally been a seat on the 11-member board for a CTA member, and Rucker, an attorney, would not be the first CTA lobbyist to serve on it. She made that point to Harman in response to a question about potential conflicts of interest. “I have demonstrated that I can separate my obligation to the education community at large and my obligation to the CTA,” she said. Fuller and Harman gave no indication that they objected to her personally. Rucker gave clear, cogent answers during two hours of questioning of all seven candidates’ broad views on ed reform at the hearing.

The nomination of Kirst, Brown’s education adviser during the gubernatorial campaign and a pragmatist and a moderate on education reform, has received near-universal praise. His primary interests – improving classroom instruction, preparing the state for the implementation of Common Core standards, and better aligning K-12 expectations with college and career goals – match Brown’s. Kirst showed his skills and even temperament in crafting Parent Trigger regulations that satisfied  antagonists on the issue.

During testimony, education advocates spoke on behalf of various nominees. But Sherry Griffith, legislative advocate for  the Association of California School Administrators, spoke on behalf of many when she praised all seven of Brown’s nominees. Calling them “phenomenal,” with 200 years of experience in education among them, she said, “This is the strongest set of board members in 15 years.”

*** Whether their children could then find a school in a nearby district willing to accept them is a different issue. The law allows districts, especially wealthy districts, to opt out easily, by citing financial hardship if they had to admit more students.  Districts with declining enrollments would be most likely to declare themselves receiver districts. Because the law is new, it’s too soon for data on how the Open Enrollment Act is working.