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TIMES ENDORSEMENT

Stormy tenure

October 12, 2005

THE HIGH-DECIBEL NOISE surrounding Proposition 74 has obscured the facts. Did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut school funding this year, as the teachers unions claim? (No.) Did he increase school funding by a substantial amount? (Yes.) Did he nonetheless renege on a promise to restore funding cut from the previous year and say the real problem with schools was bad teaching? (Yes.)

This history is important to understanding why Schwarzenegger is promoting Proposition 74, which is intended to make it easier to fire bad teachers. Though the governor's reasons for pushing the measure are suspect, he is right that teachers unions and cumbersome state rules make it too difficult to dismiss inept or uncaring teachers. Proposition 74 wouldn't help very much, but it would help a little. That's reason enough to support it.

Everyone on campus -- and some people off campus, such as involved parents -- knows who the bad teachers are. These teachers stay on in part because many principals have neither the time nor the inclination to go through the complicated procedure necessary to fire a teacher, and in part because school districts prefer to avoid the costs of administrative law hearings to which all fired teachers are entitled.

The helpful part of Proposition 74 addresses a minor part of the problem. It would expand the probationary period for new teachers, who can be fired for any reason, to five years, at which point they would receive tenure. Current law sets probation at two years. That's not enough time.

Teachers unions argue that by reducing job security, a longer probation period would discourage people from entering the profession. We have more faith in teachers than that. Most prospective teachers are intent on succeeding at their work; they don't enter the profession because they know they can fall back on tenure protection if they fail.

Proposition 74's writers did a clumsier job when they tried to make it easier to fire teachers who have gained tenure. The initiative eliminates the requirement for principals to go through two separate and lengthy periods of documentation of problem teachers. Instead, it requires two consecutive "unsatisfactory" evaluations, a year apart, for dismissal.

Should Proposition 74 pass, the need for documentation is unlikely to go away; it most likely will shift to the evaluations, which are now fairly casual. It makes sense for performance evaluations to be conducted more carefully -- and to avoid repeating the same work by doing evaluations plus the other pre-dismissal procedures. But because teachers would retain their right to appeal for an administrative hearing, and to two courts, the proposition does nothing to lower legal costs or delays.

It's easy to criticize Proposition 74's authors for their sloppy work and failure to write a true reform package. Many union rules have served children badly -- preventing administrators, for instance, from assigning experienced teachers where they are most needed. Proposition 74 takes a (small) step in the right direction. That's more than the Legislature, awash in donations from the California Teachers Assn., has managed.

The bottom line is that although Proposition 74 may not make it easier to fire experienced teachers, at least it won't make it harder. And the longer probation period offers hope for improvement over the current situation. On balance, it is a reform effort worth supporting.

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