Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan deserves a B for effort and a C-minus for execution in her bid to fix state laws on reporting of child abuse and disciplining of teachers.

Buchanan, D-Alamo, elected after serving two decades on the San Ramon Valley school board, is considered one of the smarter Sacramento lawmakers on education policy. But she's also heavily backed by the politically powerful California Teachers Association.

Consequently, her two new bills reflect a timidity to solidly address these two critical issues. On discipline, she actually makes some problems worse, tipping an already unbalanced process further in favor of teachers.

California Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan is photographed on March 18, 2011, in Walnut Creek.
California Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan is photographed on March 18, 2011, in Walnut Creek. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff file)

First, AB 1338 would require each school district to develop a policy for reporting suspected child abuse cases, and review it with employees annually. Currently, state law only encourages such policies. To the extent that districts could no longer weasel out of this, the bill is positive.

But Bay Area abuse cases reported by this newspaper and a survey of districts about their policies and training procedures makes clear that school administrators can't be trusted with this responsibility.

State law requires every school employee to report suspected abuse directly to law enforcement. Yet school administrators often fail to train their workers or, worse, they provide guidance conflicting with the law, requiring teachers to report abuse to them rather than police.

It also makes no economic sense for each district to develop its own program. The law should require that all workers annually attend state-standardized training, in person or online. And there must be meaningful penalties for those who don't comply.

With AB 375, Buchanan purports to simplify a cumbersome teacher-dismissal process. To her credit, she tries to shorten the entire process to seven months in most cases. We applaud that. But her bill fails to address other big problems, and, in some cases, complicates the process.

For starters, it wouldn't change the makeup of panels that hear dismissal cases, which currently include an administrative law judge and two teachers, one chosen by each side. Districts understandably often struggle to find teachers who can serve as neutral arbiters. The panels should be narrowed to just an administrative law judge to bring more balance and efficiency to the process.

Buchanan would strictly limit the prehearing legal discovery, a laudable goal in most cases. But she fails to provide exceptions when the complexity of cases warrants.

Her bill would set up a new hearing process for suspension of a teacher while the case is pending, undermining long-standing state procedures and setting a bad precedent that could be expanded to other public employees.

The bill would also prohibit amending of charges against a teacher, even if new information is discovered within 90 days of the hearing or during the hearing itself. That makes no sense. This isn't a criminal court, it's a dismissal proceeding.

Buchanan says she wants to streamline and improve the processes. We think she can fix her bills to achieve those goals, which we share. The question is whether she will.