James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer | Redlands Daily Facts
April 24, 2010 -- To Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and some education leaders, a bill authored by State Sen. Bob Huff, R-Walnut, is a common-sense measure aimed at helping school districts keep good teachers and more easily remove bad ones.
But teachers unions see the bill, which was approved this week by the Senate Education Committee, as an attack on the protections that shield teachers from age discrimination and retaliation.
"We see it as an attack on due process," said Tyra Weis, president of Associated Pomona Teachers.
"It takes objectivity out of the process," said Rebecca Harper, president of the San Bernardino Teachers Association.
The most contentious parts of Huff's bill, Senate Bill 955, would make it easier for districts to fire teachers and allow districts to consider teacher effectiveness and other factors when deciding which teachers to lay off during difficult times. Under current state law, with a few exceptions, districts must hand out layoffs based solely on seniority - that is, the most recently hired teachers would be the first to be laid off.
"It's not a good way to make a decision about who is teaching our kids," Huff said. Schwarzenegger has touted the bill, saying current law "takes away the flexibility that school districts have" and "tells them that even if a teacher is effective and even if a teacher is fantastic ... none of that matters when it comes to layoffs."
But Harper said seniority should remain the chief
deciding who gets laid off because it's an objective criteria. Judging how effective a teacher is, she said, is subjective.
"I'm not saying (seniority) is the best" criteria, Harper said. "I'm saying it's the most objective. It's the most fair way of treating people. ... Layoffs have to be completely based on seniority."
But seniority-based layoffs have gotten some districts in trouble. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District earlier this year, saying that the district's layoffs had disproportionately targeted poor schools that had largely young and less-inexperienced teachers.
Unlike LAUSD, school districts in San Bernardino County largely averted teacher layoffs last year, but hundreds of teachers in local school districts have received layoff notices for the coming school year.
It's not clear locally whether layoffs are disproportionately affecting poor schools, and school officials don't seem interested in changing current layoff seniority policies.
"Seniority has been real important for our teachers for a long time," said Arturo Delgado, superintendent of the San Bernardino City Unified School District. "There's research that shows that teacher experience is valuable, that it does add value to the work a teacher could do."
Delgado added, though, that experience does not guarantee a teacher will be effective.
"If you have a teacher that doesn't practice good practices in the classroom, the years alone aren't goign to make that teacher a good teacher," he said.
Huff acknowledged that schools don't have clear, objective ways to measure teachers' performance, but he said that's no reason to leave seniority as the only criteria that matters.
"In the private sector, they don't always have objective standards either, and it works," Huff said. He also noted that California community colleges are allowed to lay off employees without considering seniority.
"This is not a cutting-edge, threshold-breaking idea," he said. "This is something that's been done by the community colleges since 1971."
Weis said the bill would open the door to age discrimination.
But Huff said existing state and federal education policies, which encourage student performance, given school leaders plenty of incentive to keep good teachers.
Put another way, he said changing the law wouldn't create a situation in which principals would fire or layoff older teachers because they make more money or because of personal issues.
"They want to have a good team," Huff said. "They want their school to do well. They're not going to let a great performing teacher who's 50 years old go in favor of a 30-year-old who's lower performing. I don't see that happening."
Huff's bill would change state law, but it wouldn't prevent school districts from keeping their current dismissal and layoff policies in place. He said he knows some district won't want to make such changes but that his bill at least puts the decision "on the lap of local school board members."