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California bill would fast-track firings for teachers accused of misconduct

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said he would sign a bill that makes it easier to fire teachers accused of misconduct. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said he would sign a bill that makes it easier to fire teachers accused of misconduct. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California is planning to speed up legal battles for teachers accused of severe misconduct, another boost to its years-long effort to dismantle protections for poor-performing educators.

The state legislature gave approval to a bill last week that asks school districts to more quickly resolve disputes between teachers accused of offenses such as child molestation and drug abuse. A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday that he would sign the bill.

Under current law, it can take years for California school officials to resolve teachers’ appeals, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The bill drafted by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo) would require all hearings in serious misconduct cases to begin within 60 days.

California lawmakers have spent three years attempting to reform teacher dismissal policies. This year’s bill includes feedback from a broad coalition of state education groups and the governor’s staff. Brown, along with most state education groups, had rejected Buchanan’s 2013 bill, calling it an “imperfect solution” that could create new problems.

Buchanan said the expedited process will protect students and ensure a fair appeals process while avoiding steep litigation costs.

“The reality is, if someone is guilty of these charges, they should be out of the classroom permanently,” Buchanan said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s something that should not take two years to resolve. It just makes no sense. All it does it take away money that should be spent in the classroom.”

Teachers in California can already be fired for “immoral or unprofessional” behavior, but the state lacks a fast track to prosecute extreme cases. The bill also streamlines the appeals process for teachers fired for other types of unprofessional conduct or poor performance, requiring hearings to be completed within seven months.

High-profile teacher abuse cases in California have fueled the statewide effort for termination policy reform. An elementary teacher in Los Angeles named Mark Berndt – who was fired in 2012 with two dozen charges of lewd conduct – was paid more than $40,000 by the city to drop his challenge.

Critics of the bill include the Association of California School Administrators, which argues that the 60-day timeline is too short to gather evidence and conduct interviews. 

The bill’s supporters now include unlikely allies – an education reform group called EdVoice and one of the state’s largest unions, the California Teachers Association.

EdVoice had planned its own ballot campaign to keep criminal offenders out of schools. But the organization’s president, Bill Lucia, said the group decided to end its campaign and support the bill after “many, many, many hours of negotiations” with legislators.

“The sad thing in California is that Mark Berndt isn’t the only perpetrator. But we need to deal with that,” Lucia said.

California’s attempt to peel back protections for incompetent teachers burst into the national spotlight last week after a state Supreme Court judge struck down a tenure system that he said made it nearly impossible to fire teachers.

The ruling has ignited education reform battles in states nationwide, though it faces years of appeals in court. Minnesota and New Jersey lawmakers have announced plans to revive legislation to wipe away teacher tenure laws.

The attorneys who represented the California plaintiffs have also said they are considering legal challenges in Minnesota, New York, New Mexico, Oregon, Maryland and Connecticut.

While the teacher termination bill has little connection to the Vergara v. California decision, that ruling has put the state’s education issues “under a microscope,” said Naj Alikhan, communications director for the Association of California School Administrators.

“We’re talking about a monumental decision and truly a wake-up call for education groups throughout the state,” he said. “This case is a wake-up call that can’t be ignored because it puts everyone in education on notice that we need to work together.”

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