Oakland Teachers and the Dance of the Lemons 

Oakland parents go on strike to protest a bad teacher, but a new bill designed to make it easier to fire incompetent instructors may die in the Legislature.

Getting rid of a bad teacher is one of the most vexing problems in California. The state's antiquated tenure system, which puts the rights of teachers above those of students, makes the job of removing an incompetent instructor nearly impossible. But brave parents at Lazear Elementary School in East Oakland stood up for their kids last week by going on strike to protest someone they say is an especially horrible third-grade teacher.

Because Lazear is in one of the poorest sections of Oakland and teaching there is a difficult challenge, many good instructors with union seniority avoid the school. They end up instead at the city's more upscale campuses, leaving Lazear and others like it with a succession of rookie teachers and burned-out veterans. And because teacher firing rules are so Byzantine, districts such as Oakland end up transferring bad instructors from school to school in the hopes that they'll quit. It's known as the "Dance of the Lemons."

A bill sponsored by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is designed to end that dance. The legislation would empower local school boards to have the final word over firing teachers, and not the state's Commission on Professional Competence. The bill also would allow school boards to lay off teachers based on district needs and teacher effectiveness, instead of seniority.

The state teachers' union will surely try to kill the legislation. But it'll have a more difficult time battling a Southern California lawsuit filed by the ACLU earlier this year on behalf of low-income students. The ACLU says poor kids are hurt by seniority rules and wants school boards to be able to ignore them in deciding which teachers to lay off.

If successful, the lawsuit would only weed out bad teachers during tough economic times when districts are laying off employees to help balance their budgets. Once the economy turns around, parents and school boards would lack an effective mechanism for firing bad teachers without Schwarzenegger's legislation. And schools like Lazear will be stuck with lemons regardless of how many times the parents go on strike.

Meanwhile, Oakland's teachers appear ready to strike for higher pay. Their union is angry that the district is still refusing to offer raises after the release of an independent fact-finding report last week, according to the Oakland Tribune. The report noted that teachers in the cash-strapped Oakland school district are paid less than in other districts, but also that the district has no money. The teachers soon plan to hold a one-day strike in this city where 20 percent of residents remain jobless.

Cal Closes Door to State Students

UC Berkeley is slashing the number of California residents that it accepts and increasing the ratio of out-of-state students in an apparent effort to raise money. Out-of-state students pay three times more in tuition and fees than California residents. The San Jose Mercury News reported that the number of in-state offers at Cal dropped from 11,184 this year to 9,459 next year, while the percentage of out-of-state students on campus will more than double.

But a new report suggests UC Berkeley isn't so desperate for money after all. It concluded that Cal has a bloated bureaucracy and could save up to $75 million a year by cutting waste and inefficiency. Union members who would likely lose their jobs if the campus implements the study's recommendations are planning to fight any such cutbacks.

Kaplan Makes Mayoral Move

Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan launched an "exploratory committee" last week as a prelude to a possible run for mayor this year. The committee will allow Kaplan to raise funds for a mayoral bid in the November election and enable her to gauge how much support she has in the community. If she receives significant backing for her bid then it appears likely that she will officially jump into the race.

However, it sounds as if it won't take much to convince Kaplan to run. "With this economic and political environment, our community is in need of a bold new vision and leadership," the council member said in a statement. "I'm looking at the magnitude of what we need to do to strengthen the local economy, attract jobs and make doing business in Oakland easier, and know it will take dedicated effort."

Three-Dot Roundup

PG&E has poured another $6 million into its June ballot measure that critics contend will stifle the growth of renewable energy statewide, according to Capitol Weekly. The utility, which is worried about losing market share if more communities jump into the public power market, has now pumped $34.5 million into Proposition 16. Opponents, by contrast, have raised just $36,000. ... Oil companies and conservatives raised another $1 million for a November ballot initiative that would indefinitely suspend California's landmark climate-change law. ... Senator Barbara Boxer, who is co-sponsoring a similar law in the US Senate, is clinging to a narrow lead over GOP moderate Tom Campbell, according to a recent poll. ... And there likely will be a short commercial fishing season for chinook salmon this year, and a limited sport-fishing season, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, because of a steep decline each fall in the number of salmon that return to the Sacramento River.

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