SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 18: California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg speaks during a session of the California State Senate February 18, 2009 in Sacramento, California. The California legislature has stalled its vote on a State budget proposal after the GOP party ousted its leader, Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno. The stalled budget caused Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue 20,000 pink slips to state workers and threatens hundreds of state funded public works projects. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
I've been very tough in this space on California teachers' unions for opposing the use and public availability of new data tools for evaluating teachers. So it's only fair to defend these unions when they're being unfairly criticized.
The California Teachers Assn., for example, is getting a bad rap this week for killing a bill offered by the top Democrat in the State Senate, Darrell Steinberg. The bill proposed to limit the number of teacher lay-offs in poor schools, which has been a problem. A lawsuit filed by the ACLU in Los Angeles charges that such schools have born the brunt of recent layoffs. The lawsuit's factual charges have not been rebutted.
CTA, in working to kill the bill in the Assembly, has been widely portrayed in press accounts as engaged in legislative bullying or political payback against Steinberg, with whom the union is quarreling. What's been missed is the fact that the union was right on the policy question.
Put simply: There's no reason for the state government to be laying down hard and fast rules for how school districts and schools cope with layoffs. California's school system is already too centrally controlled, with too many rules imposed from Sacramento. This centralization, which dates to court decisions and the passage of Prop 13 in the 1970s, has been a disaster for the state.
Rules like this only deepen the centralization. Most research suggests that it's far more productive to allow school districts -- and especially individual schools -- to make their own decisions.
CTA pointed this out. It also pointed out the very real possibility of unintended consequences of the bill's requirement that the rate of lay-offs in poorer schools be in line with the rate of lay-offs in that school district. If this bill had passed, districts likely would have issued more lay-off notices to more teachers, even if they were later rescinded (to make sure the overall percentage of teachers being laid off was high enough so that virtually any school could stay under that percentage). The law was also at odds with other state mandates on teacher credentialing.
That said, it's easy to be cynical about CTA and teachers unions that defend the seniority-based system, which protects teachers based on experience and not performance. Protecting that system may well have been CTA's real motive here.
But it's unfair to condemn a union for opposing a bad policy, whatever its reasons.