Signaling the sensitivity of making even modest changes in how California runs public schools, the State Board of Education on Wednesday delayed action on an unusual request from San Jose Unified School District and its teachers union to change the length of probation for new teachers.

The request faced staunch opposition from the statewide teachers union, a powerful player in Sacramento, and a lack of support from the state Department of Education.

State board members worried about the implications of any vote with a lawsuit, unrelated to San Jose's request, hanging over their heads. That suit, known as Vergara vs. California, challenges teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissal.

Instead, the board indicated it would reconsider the waiver request in May, when the trial presumably will have wrapped up.

San Jose Unified sought flexibility to grant teachers tenure after one year, or to keep a teacher on probation for three years. Current state law requires public schools to either grant teachers tenure after two years or terminate them after the second year.

San Jose Unified officials argued that two years -- especially since districts must put together their case midway through a teacher's second year -- sometimes doesn't allow time to fairly evaluate a candidate for what can be a lifetime job. California's tenure protections make it difficult and costly to fire a teacher.


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"Permanent status for a teacher is one of the biggest decisions a district makes," said Stephen McMahon, San Jose Unified's chief business officer. "We want to make sure we're making that decision with all the relevant information."

The California Teachers Association opposed its own local's request. "It's a one-way deal," the CTA's Ken Burt told the state board. The waiver would give the school board too much power, he said.

But Jennifer Thomas, president of the 1,700-member San Jose Teachers Association, cast the waiver request as a matter of equity, justice and fairness. Sometimes, she said, circumstances beyond a teacher's control affects evaluations.

When schools err on the side of caution and let a second-year teacher go, that puts a permanent mark of being "non-re-elected" on that teacher's record.

"My job is to ensure that every child has a great teacher," Thomas said, "and to fight for every great teacher in the making."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/noguchionk12.