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California ballot measure would base teacher layoffs on performance, not seniority

Linda Mouradian signs students' practice sheets after class.
Linda Mouradian signs students' practice sheets after class.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC

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It’s a waiting game now for activists who want to change teacher seniority rules through a statewide ballot measure. The proposed measure, called the "High Quality Teachers Act of 2014," was submitted to California's attorney general on Friday for review by state officials. If everything is in order, activists will start collecting signatures to try to get it on next November's ballot.

The measure would compel districts to use performance as the factor for teacher layoffs, not seniority. The text of the measure argues that layoffs based on seniority deprive many California students of a quality education.

"Today, there are plenty of high quality teachers available, but local school districts are not able to make sure all of our children have access to a high quality teacher because local districts are currently forced to retain teachers based on how long they have been on the job," it reads.

The state’s largest teachers' union has defended seniority-based layoffs, arguing that current performance evaluations are inadequate.

The measure was submitted by Matt David, a consultant for StudentsFirst, the Sacramento education reform group founded by former Washington D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.

Cal State Fullerton professor Sarah Hill studies politics and education policy. She’s wary of the initiative process because it doesn’t allow for fine tuning the way the legislative process does. Still, she thinks something should be done.

"There’s getting to be public support and there’s enough evidence of need for reform in California," she said.  "I mean when you’re ranked as poorly as California schools are, something’s wrong."

If the ballot measure succeeds, it could be several years until its changes are carried out. The improving economy makes it unlikely that, at least for the foreseeable future, California schools will again see the large funding-based layoffs that began to cripple public schools in 2007.

The proposed measure also calls for more swift action against teachers convicted of "violent, serious, or sexual crimes." It recommends that these teachers  should be "immediately and permanently dismissed."

The Legislative Analyst’s Office is expected to release its review of the proposed initiative in a few weeks, and the state attorney general’s office is set to issue the proposal’s official title and description. If there are no hiccups in the process, then it will be up to California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to say how many signatures advocates need to qualify for next November’s ballot.