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Governor seeks to ease rules on firing weak teachers

Schwarzenegger calls for other criteria besides seniority in dismissals and advocates reducing power of state panel that can overturn decisions.

January 09, 2010|By Jason Song and Jason Felch

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed on Friday to make it easier for school districts to fire weak teachers by changing a law that mandates instructors be laid off only according to seniority. He also recommended reducing the role of a state commission that has the power to overturn teachers' dismissals.

The move to take away final say over teachers' dismissals from the Commission on Professional Competence was spurred by a Times investigation last spring, according to the governor's staff. The investigation found that the commission overturned nearly a third of teachers' dismissals statewide over the last 15 years.

The Times also found that the process of firing a tenured teacher is so difficult that districts typically try to remove only instructors accused of egregious acts and that poor teaching is rarely a factor in dismissals.

Seniority is currently the only factor considered in teachers' layoffs. As a result, ineffective teachers are sometimes retained while younger qualified instructors are let go, the governor said.

Struggling schools with less-experienced teachers often have high turnover, especially during bad budget years, leading to further instability.

"We would rather see teachers assigned on their skills," said Glen Thomas, state secretary of education.

If the governor's proposals are approved by the Legislature, local districts could bargain with local unions about seniority rights.

Union leaders said seniority insulates instructors from administrators who perform shoddy evaluations or are vindictive. "Teachers need protection from principals who go after them for personal reasons," said Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers.

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teacher Los Angeles, said he is not opposed to discussing other factors in teachers' evaluations and dismissals but said seniority should still be a factor.

"No one has proven conclusively that seniority doesn't work," said Duffy, who added that significant gains in elementary grades could be attributed to experienced instructors choosing to teach those classes.

Schwarzenegger also proposed that school boards should have the final say on teachers' dismissals.

Currently, teachers can contest their firings to a state commission that has the ultimate say on whether to uphold the termination or rescind it. The panels consist of an administrative law judge, one member chosen by the school board and another by the teacher.

"It really should be the district that makes the decision," said Kathy Gaither, a state undersecretary of education.

The governor's staff is working on the wording of the bill, which could include eliminating the panels, and will forward legislation to lawmakers by Feb. 1.

But the proposal could lead to administrators' unfairly targeting outspoken teachers, Duffy said.

"I would want an impartial third party to review these things -- away from the local district," he said.

Duffy and other union members also said they doubted that Schwarzenegger's proposals would pass. Many of the governor's recommendations echo his failed 2005 attempt to reform teacher tenure. That ballot initiative was defeated 55% to 45% after heavy spending by teachers unions.

jason.song@latimes.com

jason.felch@latimes.com

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