A controversial union-backed bill aimed at streamlining the teacher dismissal process -- in the wake of a number of high-profile abuse cases -- passed the Legislature late Thursday and is headed to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.
Critics say Assembly Bill 375, authored by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, and originally killed in a Senate committee in July, will actually worsen the multilayered firing procedure. They say teachers unions hijacked the bill and pressured lawmakers to pass it after quietly resurrecting the legislation this week, days before the legislative session ends.
The California Teachers Association, which backed the legislation, said AB 375 balances the safety of students and the rights of teachers. Buchanan, who began working on the bill a year ago, said it's a "big step forward, and I think it creates a fair, efficient process."
Not so, says Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, a nonprofit supporting improvement of the state's public schools.
"It limits the ability of districts to expeditiously and definitively dismiss teachers .... that are abusing children," he said.
The bill adds a new appeal process allowing suspended instructors to protest the move before an administrative law judge, which Lucia calls "an additional monkey wrench."
Buchanan disagrees, saying the new bill would simply change judges in a process already in place.
The bill also changes the pool of teachers eligible for a three-person panel convened to fire teachers, and it limits the number of witnesses or potential victim depositions to five (there had been no limit before).
"Every child deserves to be heard," Lucia said.
Buchanan countered that criminal investigations will include testimony from all victims.
The legislation followed a similar 2012 Senate bill authored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, which died in committee. That bill was prompted by a sex abuse scandal involving Mark Berndt, a Los Angeles teacher whose district paid him to resign rather than fire him because of the daunting dismissal process.
Buchanan's bill -- inspired in part by a Brentwood special needs teacher convicted of child abuse yet not fired -- would not have fixed the Berndt debacle, Lucia said. The new legislation provides a six-month window for a district to present its case, and it took more than a year for the Los Angeles district to get evidence after police finished their criminal investigation.
Buchanan believes any district can make the six-month window, even in the most serious cases, because districts can place a teacher on administrative leave and build a case before starting the time period.
"I think (the critics) would like to eliminate the panel, eliminate the due process and leave the decision to fire a teacher to the school district," Buchanan said. "Teachers believe there should be some form of due process ... and a hearing before peers."
CTA President Dean Vogel said the bill is a clear improvement.
"Passage of AB 375 addresses our concerns of keeping students safe, safeguarding the integrity of the profession and protecting the rights of educators," Vogel said.
Both sides agree that AB 375 has two important adjustments: eliminating a summer break moratorium on teacher suspensions and ending the statute of limitations on serious allegations.
Lucia said Buchanan and teachers union representatives asked for a rule waiver in the Senate so the dead bill could be resuscitated. A two-thirds Senate vote Monday breathed new life into the bill; it was amended and quickly made its way through committees. It was passed by both houses Thursday.
"It was clear they tried to stifle debate in the Assembly ... There's no question it was subject to special-interest pressure," Lucia said. "The author didn't go back to stakeholders after it was killed in July."
Buchanan said she consulted all sides in the year she worked on the bill. The bill, she added, received no more special interest attention than any other.
Lucia hopes Brown vetoes the bill and provides instructions for a better law. He supports a two-tiered system to fast-track "egregious cases" and create a separate dismissal process for teachers who simply don't teach a given subject very well.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.