It was supposed to be an “informational hearing” on teacher job-protection issues raised in a highly controversial lawsuit.
But Tuesday’s meeting of the Assembly Education Committee quickly evolved into a sharp-edged skirmish in California’s perpetual war over the direction of its public schools.
A loose coalition of civil rights and school reform groups has been battling with the education establishment on multiple fronts over how to deal with the “achievement gap” that separates millions of poor and/or “English learner” students from their more affluent classmates.
Students Matter, founded by wealthy technology businessman David Welch, assembled a dream team of high-powered lawyers who persuaded a Los Angeles judge last year that state laws governing teachers, including probation and seniority, short-change “high needs” students by sticking them with less-qualified teachers.
Judge Rolf Treu’s strongly worded Vergara v. California ruling, if upheld on appeal, could force the state to change teacher job protections that the California Teachers Association and other unions cherish.
Republicans introduced several bills to modify the rules Treu found lacking, but the Assembly’s Democratic leaders diverted them into “interim study” – thus stalling them without votes – which is why Tuesday’s hearing was called.
Committee chairman Patrick O’Donnell, a Long Beach Democrat and former teacher who’s closely allied with the CTA, set the combative tone in his opening statement by denouncing the education reform activists for denigrating teachers.
O’Donnell then sparred verbally with Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, author of one of the bills dealing with seniority and teacher layoffs, repeatedly interrupting her presentation by reading passages of the state Education Code he said negated the rationale for her measure.
Last year, Baker won a Contra Costa County seat that Democrats had previously held, and she’ll be a target when she seeks re-election next year.
A Republican committee member, Young Kim, complained about O’Donnell’s interruptions, and he didn’t do it to two other GOP authors.
Just one of the expert witnesses O’Donnell invited to the hearing was a supporter of the lawsuit’s premise, and both teachers he invited were union leaders. Evelyn Macias, mother of plaintiff Julia Macias, wrote a letter to O’Donnell on Dec. 1, asking to testify, but “we received no response,” she said.
Evelyn Macias showed up anyway, but O’Donnell limited her and other members of the public to one minute of speaking.
Before being cut off, Macias told O’Donnell that current teacher-protection rules have a “detrimental impact on my children and children all over the state” and are “pushing wonderful and effective teachers out of the classroom.”
O’Donnell and other politicians joined at the hip with teacher unions may not want to deal with the thorny issues raised by the Vergara decision.
But unless it’s overturned on appeal, they won’t have any choice. And the war will continue.