Issue of collective bargaining threatens evaluation reform

July 22, 2015

Democratic leaders’ efforts to rewrite the state’s teacher evaluation law have stalled over the same disagreement that upended the last big push in the Legislature three years ago: stark differences in who gets to decide what goes into an evaluation.

The chief authors of the two nearly identically worded bills, AB 575 by Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, and SB 499 by Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, would open all aspects of an evaluation to collective bargaining. The California Teachers Association backs that position, too, although the CTA hasn’t openly endorsed either bill yet. Under the current law, known as the Stull Act, only evaluation procedures, such as when and how often classroom observations take place, are negotiable.

Two districts this year did show that the teacher evaluation process can be significantly improved through bargaining. But Long Beach Superintendent Chris Steinhauser and Fresno Superintendent Mike Hanson drew opposite conclusions from their experiences.

Education management groups and a coalition of civil rights organizations argue school boards and superintendents should determine the most important elements – evaluation criteria. Those criteria include definitions of acceptable levels of job performance and student progress; standards and metrics that teachers will be measured against, including standardized tests; and how much the various elements should count in the overall evaluation. That’s how the law stands now, although many districts on their own have chosen to negotiate evaluation criteria and other elements.

Making all elements subject to bargaining “would dramatically increase the complexity of contract negotiations and the frequency of impasse by giving unions the power to negotiate items related to teacher effectiveness,” the state Chamber of Commerce wrote in a July 6 letter to Liu on behalf of two dozen business, civil rights organizations and management groups, including the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association. Opponents argue that local unions would use disagreements over evaluation criteria as leverage for higher pay and benefits.

The CTA and the latest bills’ sponsors deny this. The goal is “to improve teachers’ skills and practices to improve student learning,” Claudia Briggs, communications assistant manager for the CTA, wrote in an email. Having teachers help shape evaluation systems, she added, will ensure they are “more supportive and equitable.”

Opponents of the bills point to a lawsuit filed last week by the advocacy group Students Matter as evidence of why subjecting evaluations to further negotiations would be risky. The lawsuit charges 13 districts with illegally bargaining away their obligation under the Stull Act to consider state standardized test scores as an element in a teacher’s evaluation. The law gives districts the discretion to determine how big a factor tests should play, and so would Liu’s and O’Donnell’s bills. Opponents of the bills say more districts would ban or minimize test scores and other student progress measures if they had to negotiate them.

Two districts this year did show that the teacher evaluation process can be significantly improved through bargaining. Both Fresno Unified and Long Beach Unified created more demanding and comprehensive evaluation systems than the Stull Act requires. They are among the six California districts that have received a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. Strengthening the teacher evaluation process, including the use of student test scores, is one of the federal requirements to keep the waiver. Both Fresno and Long Beach are furthest along among the six districts in developing their new systems.

But Long Beach Superintendent Chris Steinhauser and Fresno Superintendent Mike Hanson drew opposite conclusions from their experiences. Steinhauser, who co-chaired a task force report for state Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson on which the bills were partly based, agrees with the CTA that teachers should be intricately involved in creating evaluation systems. Teachers won’t work to continuously improve, which is the goal of an evaluation system, if they haven’t bought into the process, he said. Measurements of student progress, including state tests, must be part of the conversation, Steinhauser said, although in neither Long Beach nor Fresno will tests count as a set percentage of an evaluation.

But Hanson opposes AB 575 and SB 499 and said it took many rounds of discussions over five years “to get what I wanted in the contract.” Many superintendents don’t stay around that long or persist in bringing up important evaluation issues year after year, he said. Knowing that he ultimately could veto ineffective evaluation criteria helped drive the settlement, he said.

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, a nonprofit whose study of 26 districts found the majority failed to include data on test scores in evaluations, said that Long Beach is “unique” in the long-term working relationships that Steinhauser and the unions have built. In many other districts, expanding bargaining will lead to more disputes going before the state Public Employee Relations Board. “There will be new opportunities for a lot of lawyers to get involved,” he said.

Management groups’ resolute opposition to expanded bargaining makes passage problematic, even though the bills would address what both sides of the debate acknowledge are weaknesses in the current law.

Key changes

The bills would include these significant changes:

Levels of performance. The Stull Act has become a means to fire the worst teachers, not improve the performance of the rest. That’s because there are only two categories of performance: satisfactory and unsatisfactory. The bills would add a third unnamed category that could function as “needs improvement.” (Fresno Unified will now have four categories in its new system, including “Demonstrates Expertise” and “Growth Expected.” Long Beach has added a fifth category.)

More frequent evaluations. Under the Still Act, teachers who have been employed at least 10 years are to be evaluated every five years. Under both bills, those teachers would be evaluated every three years and other tenured teachers every two years.

Clearer criteria. The bills expand and elaborate on the Stull Act’s criteria for evaluating teachers. They would consider a broad range of skills, as described in the 30-page “California Standards for the Teaching Profession,” which the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing adopted in 1997. Many districts already incorporate them in their evaluations. The standards describe a half-dozen areas, such as how teachers engage students and collaborate with parents, prepare lessons, manage their classrooms and master subject matter. The bills also mandate a seventh criterion: how teachers contribute to student academic growth, which could be measured by students’ presentations and portfolios, or grades. Scores on district and state standardized tests would have to be included to some degree, too.

Training mandate. The bills would require the state to pay for training evaluators and supporting teachers who need help. A legislative analysis estimated the annual cost at $60 million – new money the state didn’t have three years ago but will likely have next year.

Earlier in the year, AB 1078, the Assembly Republicans’ evaluation bill, was defeated along party lines in the Assembly Education Committee. It included aspects of AB 575 and SB 499 without giving teachers more bargaining power. The fact that the chairs of both education committees introduced similarly worded bills, with House Speaker Toni Atkins and Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León as co-authors, emphasized how important Democratic leaders viewed teacher evaluation reform.

SB 499 passed the Senate on a partisan vote. AB 575 barely passed the Assembly by one vote, with nine Democrats initially withholding their support. Liu and O’Donnell then held back their bills from further action before the Legislature recessed for a month, which normally would put the bills on ice until next spring. But either bill could be revived with a waiver from the Rules Committee, and Atkins and de León could easily make that happen.

Liu’s spokesman, Robert Oakes, acknowledged there “has not been a meeting of the minds about the best approach” to resolve differences over the bills and conversations will continue. O’Donnell aide Brendan Hughes wouldn’t rule out seeking reconsideration of AB 575 in August or September.

“It’s a complicated issue, and we will continue to work on it. Does that mean the bill will come back this year? I don’t know,” he said.

Such ambiguity makes lobbyists for school districts wary.

“We don’t know what the endgame will be, but we believe it would be a grave error to conclude the fight is over for this year, and to think therefore that we can stop pressing on the issue, especially with the Administration,” Bob Blattner of Blattner and Associates wrote to clients. Blattner is a veteran lobbyist representing school districts and education agencies.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet taken a public position on either bill.

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