CTA, flexing political clout, targets Steinberg tenure proposal

One of the biggest education bills of the year died an ignoble death late at night during an ad hoc hearing of the Assembly Appropriations committee in the final hours of the legislative session. The fact that the bill was authored by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, was not enough to overcome opposition from some Republicans and strong opposition from the California Teachers Association.

The death of Steinberg’s SB 1285 (which was later amended into a separate vehicle in the closing hours of the legislative session, SB 681) underscores not only recent tensions between Steinberg and CTA. It also illustrates the strong hold the teacher’s union has on the Assembly Democratic caucus. The union backed Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, over a state senator, Gloria Romero of Los Angeles, in the race for state superintendent of public instruction. And while CTA took out mailers critical of Steinberg’s initial budget proposal, CTA’s leaders appeared at a press conference with Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, earlier this summer to voice support for the speaker’s plan.
Steinberg’s measure would have limited the number of teacher layoffs in poor schools, which he contended were hit disproportionately harder in tough economic times. The union opposed the measure because it interfered with the current system of seniority.

“CTA and (the Los Angeles Unified School District) didn’t like the bill because they’re more comfortable with the status quo,” said Steinberg spokesman Nathan Barankin. Steinberg “viewed this as less of an education measure and more of a civil rights issue. When there are layoffs it disproportionately affects kids in our poorest neighborhoods who tend to get the least experienced teachers,” he said.

Unions said the bill would have lead to districts issuing more layoff notices to teachers to comply with the law. They also argued the bill would complicate the state’s teacher credentialing process, because districts are required to replace laid-off credentialed teachers with other credentialed teachers.

CTA spokeswoman Sandra Jackson did not  return calls seeking comment. But the union’s objections were articulated in the Assembly committee’s analysis of the bill and on CTA’s website.

“This bad bill ties the hands of local decision makers in determining the best layoff procedures to meet the needs of students and schools in the district,” the CTA Web site reads. “This proposal requires school districts to keep less experienced teachers and lay off more experienced teachers regardless of performance. There is no data to support the assumption that this rigid formula improves instruction, but there is significant data that shows students perform better with more experienced teachers. The unintended consequence will certainly be that teachers with less than five years’ experience will comprise the staff of high priority schools.”

Current law grants experienced teachers seniority, meaning the less experienced teachers are the most susceptible to lay-offs when districts are looking to cut costs. According to Steinberg, that system leaves poor schools at risk, since they employ the majority of new and less experienced teachers. Steinberg’s bill would have put a cap on the amount of teachers poor schools are permitted to lay off. The number of teachers laid off from poor schools could not exceed that of the district average.

But reports published on the CTA’s website said the bill would hurt schools. By undermining the rules of seniority, poor schools will be left with a higher concentration of less experienced teachers. The CTA reports defended the current lay-off policies and called Steinberg’s proposed lay-off plan “rigid,” while accusing the senator of favoritism.
The bill was the victim of the familiar political wrangling technique affectionately called the “gut and amend.” It started out as SB 1285 but when that measure stalled, Steinberg amended the language from his bill into SB 691, an unrelated measure by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. Yee did not comment when asked about Steinberg’s maneuver, but the look on his face indicated he was less than pleased.

While the measure died this year, Barankin said Steinberg has vowed to try again. “Darrell’s committed to pursing it as soon as we reconvene next year,” Barankin said.

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