Education

Changes to teacher tenure law on hold in Sacramento. Again.

A kindergarten teacher at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary in Watts.
A kindergarten teacher at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary in Watts.
Priska Neely/KPCC

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The job security of "tenure" protections is one of the perks of being a public school teacher — and in California, educators receive it sooner than they would if they worked elsewhere in the U.S.

Teachers in more than 40 other states must serve at least three years before receiving tenure. But under California law, principals must decide after two years whether to either let the teacher go or to grant a teacher "permanent employee" status.

In surveys, many teachers report valuing tenure rights as protection against unfair discipline. But critics have said the two-year timeline frequently forces school administrators to make gut-wrenching calls: "Am I prematurely granting tenure protections to a teacher who might turn out to be ineffective? Or prematurely dismissing a teacher with untapped potential?"

For a moment earlier this year, it looked like California lawmakers might've been ready to change that timeline. In June, Assembly members overwhelmingly approved AB 1220, a bill that would give administrators an extra year to decide whether to grant tenure to a new teacher.

But now, changes to teacher tenure now appear to be on hold in Sacramento.

This week, AB 1220's author, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), asked to cancel the bill's hearing in the Senate Education Committee. That effectively means her proposal won't be moving forward until next year.

"Our commitment is to continue to work on this bill," Weber said in an interview Thursday.

Assembly members voted 3-to-1 in support of AB 1220 despite the opposition of the California Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union. (In a statement, the union's president said the legislation would "make it harder for California to attract and keep the best teachers as we face a critical teacher shortage.")

But Weber ultimately decided to throw the brakes on AB 1220 for now because of changes made to the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. There, committee members amended Weber's bill to give principals the option of granting tenure after two years, but not requiring them to make a final call until after a teacher's third year.

Weber wants to take a year to craft an amendment to change AB 1220 back to her original idea: teachers would receive tenure after three years in the classroom, but a principal not ready to grant tenure after the third year would not be forced to let that teacher go.

Instead, Weber wants to allow the teacher to remain employed on a probationary basis for up to five years — giving the teacher more time to improve and principals more time to both help and assess.

Chris Eide, interim executive director of Teach Plus California, a non-profit that has advocated for changes to the tenure law, said AB 1220 as it emerged from the appropriations committee was "watered down." He called for lawmakers to return it back to the original idea.

The bill "as it was heard in the Assembly Education committee very much reflected the aspirations of the teachers we reflected with," Eide said. "We’re disappointed it is taking longer than we would hope. We understand that Sacramento is a complicated place and we’re here for the long haul."

Advocates for new teacher tenure rules have pursued changes in multiple venues. In 2012, they tried the courts, filing the Vergara v. California case, challenging tenure rules along with several other job protections teacher unions view as linchpins of the profession. Though a lower court sided with the advocates, a higher court ultimately rebuffed them and upheld the current tenure structure.

Last year, the advocates of tenure changes turned to Sacramento, initially getting behind AB 934 — a legislative package billed by its author as a collection of "middle way" reforms to California's teacher job protection laws, including tenure. The push didn't work; the advocates ultimately pulled their support, and AB 934 died in committee.

Now, with Weber's move to take an extra year on AB 1220, the author of a similar, competing bill also asked that his bill be held.

A spokesman said Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond) asked to cancel a Wednesday hearing on AB 1164, which proposed giving principals the option to grant tenure after the second year. If the principal did not, AB 1164 would grant a teacher in their third year of probation the rights to challenge their dismissal.

Unlike Weber's bill, AB 1164 had the blessing of the California Teachers Association.

Weber was confident her bill had the votes to pass in the Senate. She said her reasons for holding the bill an extra year were essentially procedural: she had little time to craft amendments after AB 1220 cleared the Rules committee and was worried she'd lose control of the bill after it moved to Senate Appropriations.

"I didn’t want to put something forward as important as this," Weber explained, "and then find ourselves having made decisions or concessions that were not beneficial."

Weber preferred AB 1220 in its initial form because if principals were given the option to grant non-tenured teachers a third year of probation, they were unlikely to exercise that option.

In its initial form, Weber felt AB 1220 was "a bill that principals can use without feeling like, ‘Oh, my goodness, if I give a third year [of probation], then it’s going to cause me an enormous headache.’ Because if it does, then they won’t do it.

"If your choice is to get rid of a person after two years," she added, "or give them a third year but then cause chaos in your life, more than likely you’re going to do the two years and then forget about it.”

Weber was also clear in her thoughts on the competing bill, Thurmond's AB 1164: she would continue working on AB 1220 "as a bill by itself, not in competition with some other bill, that we have to reconcile ourselves with — no."