Months after a Los Angeles judge ruled that California's largest school district was violating state law by failing to use student test scores in evaluating teachers, lawmakers are scrambling to rewrite the rules.
The battle royal pits teachers against school administrators and school boards in fierce lobbying rocking the Capitol in the final days of a legislative session set to adjourn for the year Friday.
The hottest issue is a push to grant teachers the right to collectively bargain all aspects of any evaluation system.
Politically, the fight comes at a crucial time, when Democratic leaders are courting public employee unions, such as the California Teachers Association, to back Gov. Jerry Brown's tax hike on the November ballot.
Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar, is leading the charge for a new teacher evaluation system by pushing legislation, Assembly Bill 5. Change is pivotal for students because nothing affects education more than a good teacher, he contends.
"Effective teachers are those that have the capability of understanding where their strengths and weaknesses are, and that only happens if you have a comprehensive evaluation system," Fuentes said.
All sides concede the current system does an inadequate job of identifying the best teachers to emulate or the teachers who most need to improve.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District court case, the judge slapped the massive district's evaluation process by noting that 99.3 percent of its teachers receive the top rating of "meets standard performance."
"This one dimensional rating of virtually all teachers as 'effective' provides little meaningful evaluation," Judge James C. Chalfant wrote.
Disagreement over AB 5 focuses on whether requiring collective bargaining undermines strong change, and whether Fuentes' bill is being rushed to judgment because of Friday's deadline.
"I think it's a huge issue to take up and try to push through in the session's last days, when everybody trying to lead school districts is saying it's a bad idea," said Peter Birdsall, director of the statewide county superintendents association.
Fuentes contends that time will not alter his fundamental disagreement with AB 5 critics over collective bargaining.
"I firmly believe that you need the buy-in from your teachers if you're going to be developing a system that evaluates them," he said.
Fuentes' bill would evaluate teachers more often, using more yardsticks to probe more points of expertise, but collective bargaining would determine which measurements to use and how much weight to give them.
Eric Heins, CTA vice president, applauded AB 5 for creating a state framework that school administrators and teachers, jointly at the bargaining table, could flesh out to meet local needs.
"What works for Los Angeles may not work in Chico or San Francisco," he said. "Each district is a little different and that's why collective bargaining is important."
AB 5 opponents counter that teachers will thwart any program with teeth.
"It's not rocket science to figure out what's going to happen at the bargaining table -- it's going to wind up not being a strong evaluation system," said Tim Melton of StudentsFirst, an education reform group led by Michelle Rhee, wife of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.
At a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Education Committee, Chairman Alan Lowenthal expressed concern at expanding collective bargaining with no way of hitting the brakes, if necessary.
Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, requested that AB 5 be amended to add a "sunset date," at which time the new evaluation system would expire unless the Legislature reviewed and extended it. Fuentes agreed to make the change before the Senate votes on AB 5 this week.
Judge Chalfant, in his ruling two months ago, found that the Los Angeles school district was violating an often-ignored state law by not tying teacher evaluations to progress made by students toward meeting state and local academic standards.
Earlier versions of AB 5 did not require use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. Fuentes' bill was amended recently to provide that mandate, but the weight given to pupil scores would be left to collective bargaining.
Under AB 5, teachers would be evaluated for expertise in areas ranging from connecting learning to a student's everyday life to engaging in continuous professional development and using research-based instructional strategies.
Student test scores would be required as one measure of teacher evaluation; others could include pupil grades, projects, portfolios, performances and classroom participation.
Veteran teachers would be evaluated every three years, rather than every five. They would be subject to multiple observations by trained evaluators. The system would feature at least three tiers of performance ratings, not simply pass or fail, to help identify the most effective instructors.
The public would be solicited for recommendations before districts begin collective bargaining, and the community would be notified of details once agreement is reached.
By rewriting a current law, known as the Stull Act, AB 5 would delete a provision requiring school boards to set standards for pupil achievement in every subject and grade level.
"AB 5 eliminates the only provision in the California Education Code giving local districts control over standards," said Bill Lucia of EdVoice, a nonprofit group that is spearheading opposition to the bill.
Once school boards no longer are required to adopt local grade-by-grade achievement standards, decisions about whether and how to do so would be left to collective bargaining, giving teachers significant new power, Lucia said.
Fuentes agreed Wednesday to amend his bill to resolve such concerns, aides said.
Fuentes and other AB 5 supporters contend that passage would improve California's chances of obtaining a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law that could free up $350 million for schools.
Opponents disagree that AB 5 would lead to a federal waiver. Rather than ease money woes, they say, the bill's collective bargaining and other mandates would send costs soaring by millions of dollars in a rocky economy, with the fate of Brown's pending tax measure uncertain.
Fuentes' bill sets aside $60 million to help implement a new evaluation system, but the money is from a targeted fund that can be used only for low-performing schools. AB 5 provides no additional funding for about 80 percent of California's schools.
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