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California Districts May Soon Have More Time to Make Tenure Decisions

Under current law, a California district has about two years to decide whether a novice teacher is worthy of permanent status, or "tenure;" if not, it can let the teacher go. But last Thursday, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow school districts to add an extra year of probation for promising, but not yet up-to-par, novice teachers who would have been dismissed. 

The bill passed in the Assembly with a vote of 60-5. If it becomes law, districts will have more time—up to three years—to decide whether to fire or permanently hire teachers. 

With the exception of the third year for promising novice teachers, the bill essentially maintains the status quo by keeping the time to tenure at two years for teachers who demonstrate mastery. But that's a considerable revision of the original version of the bill that was introduced in the Assembly in February, which would have extended the time line for granting tenure to all teachers, whether they've mastered the craft or not, from two years to three. Districts would have also had the option to offer promising educators a fourth or fifth year of probation in which they would receive additional coaching to help them fine-tune their teaching before being granted tenure or let go.

Even as those provisions were nixed last Tuesday night, just two days before the Assembly vote, proponents still found in the compromise bill a sort of victory. The current time line for granting tenure is too short to make "high-stakes decisions for teachers, the schools, and ultimately for our students," author of the bill Assemblymember Shirley Weber has argued.

California has long been criticized for its short path to teacher tenure. Only two other states—South Carolina and Vermont—grant tenure in two years, according to the Washington-based research-and-advocacy group National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). In 42 states, teachers earn tenure in three to five years; Mississippi teachers can earn it after only one year in the classroom.

The nonprofit Students Matter, which filed the lawsuit Vergara v. California, cheered the bill's passing in the Assembly, even in its weakened form. Vergara attempted to do away with teacher tenure altogether, arguing that such protections made it nearly impossible to fire ineffective teachers. The case was ultimately struck down last year. In addition, an effort in 2016 to revise teacher tenure in the Golden State failed to make it pass the legislative finish line.

The California Teachers Association decried the bill despite the last-minute revisions, which technically keep the two-year tenure route intact. The union saw the bill as a blow to efforts to solve the state's teacher shortage problem.

"As a state, we should be supporting teacher quality and attracting the best and brightest teachers for California students and this bill will not do that," said a press release from the California Teachers Association.

The union generally argues that the problem lies with a lack of funding, not with short tenure timelines. When principals have the time and resources to do their jobs documenting teacher performance, ineffective teachers can be counseled out of the profession in a timely manner. Instead, principals are stretched too thin, and don't have the time to provide proper guidance and support for new teachers.

The Senate Education Committee is next to consider the bill's fate, possibly before the recess in mid July.

Not everyone is happy with the Assembly's vote. The nonprofit Teach Plus has urged the Senate to restore the bill's original provision that would have required a minimum of three years before any teacher could be considered for tenure. Teach Plus sponsored the original bill which its teacher fellows helped to craft.

Joshua Brown, a teacher at Holmes Middle School in Los Angeles and a Teach Plus California teaching policy fellow, said in a statement that the revised bill is a step in the right direction, though with some reservation. "Our hope is that the final bill has meaningful provisions around tenure and ensures safeguards for teachers by providing them with ample support at the beginning of their careers."


For more on efforts to change California's tenure rules, see:


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