October 13, 2006
Cal. Law Blocks Transfer of 'Lemon' Teachers
By Rita Beamish, Special to Stateline
SAN FRANCISCO — If a teacher doesn't measure up, should he or she jump over other applicants for a job at a different school? Not anymore, at least not in California's neediest schools. A new state law bars school districts from forcing principals at low-scoring schools to hire teachers who transfer from elsewhere in the district.
In a move watched by educators across the nation, California's Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) concluded that the preference system had allowed transferring teachers, often with weak records, to bump newer teachers from schools that needed them most, even when the principal preferred the newer teacher.
Schools that got stuck tended to be urban, poor schools with less job competition than those in affluent neighborhoods. They had to accept teachers transferred by administrators who — rather than issue a negative evaluation — simply took the easier option "to gently push the person out the door," said state Sen. Jack Scott , a Pasadena Democrat who passed the reform over opposition from powerful teachers' unions. If the teacher didn't succeed at the new school either, he or she transferred to yet another post - "the dance of the lemons," critics called it.
James Dierke, an award-winning principal in San Francisco, said he had strong new hires and had stemmed a high teacher turnover at Visitacion Valley Middle School only to then have priority transfer teachers show up. Some were reshuffled to him because of declining enrollment elsewhere - a factor not addressed in the new law - and others were weak teachers transferring from other schools.
"My new teachers, who were all energetic and wanted to teach, got bumped. I got people who … didn't really want to be in my school," he said. "As a principal in a lower-performing school, I'm charged with bringing up the test scores. It's difficult to do that when you don't have a winning team."
Now principals like Dierke at low-performing schools can refuse teachers they don't want. And all schools must meet an April 15 annual deadline for teacher transfer decisions. After that, any transfers join the mix with all other applicants.
Scott's bill was fueled by the national nonprofit group, New Teacher Project , which surveyed five large urban school districts, including San Diego, and found 40 percent of vacancies went to teachers transferring between schools. Not all were so-called lemons, but nearly two-thirds of principals said they ended up with at least one transfer they didn't want.
"We're just in this business for students. We're not in this business for employees," Scott said. He targeted schools ranking in California's bottom three categories for academic achievement because they tend to have economically stressed and immigrant families who aren't as aggressive about challenging teacher performance as are parents in affluent schools, he said.
Teacher unions say the changes sidestep the real problems and undercut collective bargaining.
"The wrong answer for a very complex problem," said spokeswoman Sandra Jackson of the California Teachers Association (CTA), one of Sacramento's most influential lobby groups. "What it does is blame teachers for the problems that exist in the lower-performing districts and blames teacher transfer rights." She said smaller class size, high-quality instructional materials, parent involvement, and principal support are fundamental to securing high-quality teachers for the neediest schools.
Fred Glass, the California Federation of Teachers communication director, said the new, "one-size-fits-all" approach undermines local decision-making as well as teacher's job security and collective-bargaining rights. "Teachers often feel they have very little power over their work day. And this will simply reinforce that feeling, and it will drive creative teachers out of the profession," he said.
Scott's lopsided margin of victory raised eyebrows among Capitol watchers used to seeing teacher unions get their way with the Democratic-controlled Legislature. The measure passed the state Senate 33-1 and the Assembly 59-12. Scott's stature as education committee chairman and former community college president, and his bipartisan coalition including minority legislators and advocacy groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), helped pull it off. Schwarzenegger signed the legislation in September.
"We have a hope it will be a great tool for principals wanting to fill out their faculties with teachers who want to be there and who will be a good fit for their students," said Francisco Estrada, MALDEF's director of public policy. Low-income schools serving limited-English speakers, he said, "need a little more attention if we're ever going to overcome this achievement gap between Latino and other students."
The New Teacher Project, based in New York, said nearly half of principals surveyed admitted hiding their vacancies into the summer to avoid having transfer teachers forced on them. By then the good applicants also had slipped away to other jobs, including Estrada's own daughter, who had hoped to teach at a low-performing public school. He said she ultimately took a charter school post rather than be left hanging while the transfer jockeying dragged into the summer.
The New Teacher Project expects to identify five states for similar legislative efforts, said the group's president, Michelle Rhee.
"There were a lot of other states watching how this played out," she said. "Because the CTA is so strong and has in the past been able to block legislation, the fact that we were able to get this legislation passed has given other states a great deal of hope that they could do something similar."
Principals with "lemon" experience nationwide are encouraged by the authority they could gain under a California-type solution, said Dierke, a board member of the American Federation of School Administrators . "They are all looking at California because, once again, teachers have tenure, superintendents have contracts and principals have their good looks," he said.