Monday, April 19, 2010

'Dance of the Lemons'

By Robert Gammon
Mon, Apr 19, 2010 at 12:47 PM

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 what they say is 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.”

But a new bill moving through the Legislature sponsored by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is designed to finally 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 the most hurt by union seniority rules and wants school boards to have the power to ignore seniority in deciding which teachers to lay off.

But the lawsuit, if successful, would only will weed out bad teachers during tough economic times when districts are laying off employees to help balance their budgets. That means when the economy turns around, parents and school boards will not have an effective mechanism for firing bad teachers — unless Schwarzenegger’s legislation goes through. If it doesn’t, then schools like Lazear will be stuck with lemons regardless of how many times the parents go on strike.

The Oakland teacher’s union, on the other hand, appears ready to go on strike itself for higher pay. The 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 plan to hold a one-day strike soon in a city where 20 percent of residents remain jobless because of the Great Recession.

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