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When I was wandering by the booths Saturday at Politifest, I chatted with the folks staffing the California Teachers Association table. They were excited for me to ask Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins about the Vergara case – in which an L.A. judge concluded teacher tenure and seniority rules violated kids’ civil rights to quality education.

It’s on hold right now, pending an appeal. But if it somehow sticks, Vergara would dramatically restructure teacher protections across the state.

The teachers union thought for sure the decision would be thrown out. And CTA is appealing. But the state has yet to decide if it will join that appeal.

In fact, state Democratic leaders have been rather quiet about the case.

On stage a bit later, Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari was not quiet about it. He said not appealing the case would be the best education policy decision the state could make right now.

He likened it to the state’s decision not to defend Proposition 8, the law that banned same-sex marriage. Gov. Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris should follow that same model, he said, and let the Vergara decision force the Legislature to reform teacher protections.

The legislature is led by Atkins, the speaker of the Assembly. So what was her take on Vergara?

“Of all the things I’ve been involved in education is certainly not my strong suit. But it is one of the most important issues that Californians care about,” she said.

Thus, she would offer her thoughts “from a layperson’s standpoint.”

After a long description of how complex education is, she said this: “Teachers don’t have tenure for life. In the first two years, teachers can be fired without cause. They don’t have to be given a reason. They can just be fired, without cause. No rationale.”

That’s not altogether true. Everyone says two years but it’s effectively much less than even that short period. The decision must be made before those two years are over. As the judge in the Vergara case pointed out, administrators don’t even finish the evaluation of a teacher’s two years before the decision to give them permanent status must be made.

Atkins moved on to grapple with the process you have to go through if you want to remove a permanent teacher. It’s intense, time-consuming and so costly it almost never happens. Atkins agrees that needs to change.

“We have a system that isn’t working and doesn’t please anyone. If there’s a teacher you need to get rid of, there needs to be a clear, understandable, condensed process to do that,” she said.

It seemed like we might be getting into interesting territory. Atkins went on, we can make changes now, she said.

“We don’t need a Supreme Court decision to make those reforms,” she said.

As an example, she pointed to recent deal between Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, the teachers union and EdVoice, a reform organization. But the bill they came up with mostly streamlines the process for dealing with teachers who have been accused of egregious crimes, such as “acts that would include sexual abuse, child abuse and some drug crimes,” as EdSource described them.

She stopped there.

Atkins did not say whether she would support appealing Vergara or letting it be and making the reforms at the legislative level to appease it. She acknowledged that the teachers union would appeal it regardless.

Then she made a joke about how my eyes were glazing over. At least one observer, San Diego FreePress writer Doug Porter, wrote I would have had reason to lose focus. She wasn’t saying anything.

For the record, my eyes were clear. My heart was full. I find this dance – as Porter called it – captivating.

Education reform in the country and in California is a tricky issue for Democrats. That it should be possible to fire teachers who have been working longer than two years doesn’t seem like a radical position. That maybe schools should have a chance to evaluate teachers better and for a longer period before giving them such powerful protections is also not incredibly wild. And maybe teachers can be recruited and placed in schools based on something more indicative of their contribution than just how long they’ve served.

These are stances with which President Barack Obama and his secretary of education agree. Many education reformers are staunch Democrats.

Yet the teachers union representatives interpret these positions as unacceptable insults and threats.

That leaves leaders like Atkins in a pickle.

In the end, she would not say whether she wants an appeal or what reforms she can support. As for the other issue at play in Vergara, where only teachers’ seniority matters in decisions about who gets laid off during tough budget times, Atkins would only say she hoped not to have to lay off teachers.

“There are certainly bad teachers and good teachers. In any business you run or work, you have good workers and workers who need assistance to become good workers. I’m not going to defend bad teachers. I don’t think anyone wants to defend bad teachers. But I also think there has to be a fair and equitable process,” she said.

It sounds like it will be a process someone else will have to come up with.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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