Bill to lengthen probation for teachers clears first hurdle

April 27, 2017

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber after testifying before the State Board of Education in 2016.

Legislation to add a year to the two-year probationary period for California teachers passed the Assembly Education Committee, its first test, on Wednesday after contentious exchanges between the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and committee Chairman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach.

With Weber voting in favor, Assembly Bill 1220 got the bare minimum of four votes to move on. O’Donnell, a former teacher and teachers union representative, cast the sole vote against it, while Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, a candidate for the 2018 race for state superintendent of public instruction, expressed concerns about the bill but didn’t vote. Neither did another Democrat on the committee, Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, who also chairs the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance.*

California is one of a half-dozen states with a teacher probationary period of two years or less; in 42 states, it’s between three and five years, according to a staff analysis of the bill. Weber’s bill would make three years the norm for granting permanent status or “tenure,” although probation could be extended to a fourth or fifth year for teachers who show promise but could benefit from further coaching and training.

“No one can justify 18 months,” Weber said, referring to the point in a teacher’s second year that districts must decide whether to fire or promote new teachers. “This is a simple bill that should not raise eyebrows; three years are standard across the nation.”

California’s short probationary time was one of five teacher protection laws challenged in the Vergara v. California lawsuit brought by the advocacy organization Students Matter. In 2014, a state district court judge ruled that the state’s tenure, dismissal and layoff-by-seniority laws violated low-income, minority students’ constitutional right to an equal education. A three-judge appeals court panel overturned the decision, ruling that the Legislature, not judges, should determine tenure and other teacher issues, and the state Supreme Court last year let the appeals ruling stand.

In the past two years, largely along party lines, bills to change tenure and the other laws behind the Vergara case have died in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Weber, a former San Diego Unified board member and college professor, said she introduced AB 1220 at the prompting of two teacher organizations, Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus.

Speaking for the bill, Liz Sanders, an English teacher and bargaining leader for the California Teachers Association at De Anza High in Richmond, said the current time limit presents districts with a predicament: “Either grant tenure while unsure or dismiss struggling teachers,” continuing a churn of new teachers.

But opponents said extending probation by at least a year will make the profession less attractive to potential teachers, compounding a teacher shortage. On behalf of the California Teachers Association, Karen Sher, a veteran teacher and instructional coach and member of the Oxnard Union High School District board, said that the current law offers ample time for multiple evaluations to determine whether a probationary teacher should continue in the classroom. Keeping ineffective teachers longer harms students, she said.

The CTA and the California Federation of Teachers oppose Weber’s bill, while the Association of California School Administrators supports it. David Robertson, director of Human Resources for Twin Rivers Unified, said sometimes a new teacher starts out the first year in an early elementary grade, then is transferred to a higher grade in another school the next year. The principal of that school will decide on tenure based on three months of observations of a teacher facing new and different challenges. “That’s why we need the third year,” he said.

Under the bill, districts could continue to dismiss probationary teachers without having to cite a cause, as they now do. A teacher would need two consecutive positive evaluations to get permanent status; the decision would normally be made after three years. But districts could have an option of extending probation for a fourth or fifth year “in extenuating circumstances,” said Weber, for borderline teachers, who would then be entitled to district-provided mentoring and training.

O’Donnell, who at one point cut off Weber’s microphone after she interrupted him, insisted that districts would stretch probation into five years because financially it’s cheaper to continue to hire probationary teachers. As evidence, he pointed to some districts’ practice of hiring teachers in temporary positions for years before making them probationary teachers.

Weber called that a “bogus argument” and a mischaracterization to call it, as O’Donnell did, a five-year tenure bill.

Thurmond said he was troubled that probationary teachers would get teaching help only after the third year. “Why not front-load that help for all teachers at the beginning?”

Weber said the bill, while not perfect, provides “a beginning, a framework” for future legislation improving teacher evaluations and training.

* Also voting for the bill with Weber were Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, Heath Flora, R- Modesto, and Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin. 


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