Early this year, Los Angeles police arrested Mark Berndt, a longtime teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, on 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children between the ages of seven and ten. The sickening details of the crimes Berndt is charged with committing horrified the community and the state. More stories about California teachers accused of sexual misconduct with children have now surfaced. The Berndt case casts new light on the tortuous legal process that makes it nearly impossible for schools to rid themselves of even these depraved teachers. Perversely, the case also shows the extent to which teachers’ unions will go to protect their prerogatives.
As a result of Berndt’s indictment, the Los Angeles Unified School District asked the state legislature to change existing law to speed up the process of removing such teachers. State senator Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat and former L.A. city councilman, wrote Senate Bill 1530, which would streamline the labyrinthine “dismissal statutes” that require districts to navigate a seemingly endless maze of hearings and appeals. Padilla’s bill was actually quite narrow in scope, dealing only with credible claims that a teacher has abused a child with sex, drugs, or violence. Existing law lets local school boards immediately suspend a teacher under “specified conditions, including immoral conduct.” Padilla’s bill simply would add language allowing a school board to suspend an employee for “serious or egregious unprofessional conduct.” Garnering strong bipartisan support, Padilla’s bill sailed through the state senate in late May on a vote of 33 to 4.
The state assembly, however, is a stronghold for the California Teachers Association, which strongly opposes SB 1530. Before and during the hearings on Padilla’s legislation in the assembly education committee, union leaders and their confederates launched a propaganda effort against the bill, deploying all their standard talking points. The union maintained that SB 1530 was nothing more than a “teacher-bashing bill.” It was too cumbersome, too expensive, and would kill due-process rights. It was demoralizing and even “un-American.” Though these attacks were transparently unfair, legislators got the message. The bill needed six “yeas” from the 11-member committee to pass; it received only five, with two “nays” and four abstentions.
Apparently none of the committee Democrats had the sense to ask how protecting children from pedophiles amounts to “teacher-bashing.” The union’s charge that the bill is “cumbersome” was equally bewildering. In fact, Padilla’s legislation would curtail the number of steps required to fire a criminal teacher. The current system is so unwieldy that it discourages administrators from taking action against all but the most egregious miscreants. The claim that Padilla’s bill would cost districts more money is even loopier. “In the past decade,” reported Beth Barrett at the L.A. Weekly in 2010, “LAUSD officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district’s 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance—and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle is $500,000.”
The high cost of firing teachers helps explain why the Los Angeles Unified School District simply paid Berndt a $40,000 severance rather than undertake the formal dismissal process, even though he’s accused of the most despicable crimes against children. If the indicted ex-teacher had decided to pursue his legal options under current state law, odds are that the district would have paid a great deal more than the five-figure sum that bought Berndt’s resignation. That’s what makes the union’s claim that SB 1530 would “kill due process” so outrageous—what California has now is effectively “undue process.” But when LAUSD school board president Monica Garcia testified before the assembly education committee last month, she assured legislators that Padilla’s bill protects due process “by allowing a teacher to present his/her defense, to be represented by counsel, to require disclosure and to present witnesses. The teacher would also be able to request a hearing by an independent arbiter.” Even in the event of a false claim, no teacher would lose his job simply by being accused. What more protection could they want?
The CTA’s real objection to SB 1530 concerned significant changes to the Commission on Professional Competence, which is perhaps the most egregious aspect of the current dismissal process. The three-member panel consists of an administrative law judge and two union-sponsored teachers, and it has the final say on whether a teacher stays or goes. A CPC review can consume a year or more, all while the teacher under scrutiny remains on the payroll and adds to his pension fund. SB 1530 would have eliminated the two teachers from the panel and made the administrative law judge’s role advisory. The judge would still hear testimony, but he would deliver his opinion to the school board, which would then render the decision. (Incidentally, the bill would also deny pension benefits to any public employee convicted of sex abuse involving a minor.)
Teachers’ unions are nothing if not predictable. Their mandate is to represent all teachers, even lousy ones—and even a few criminals. After all, the union collects, on average, more than $1,000 per year from every teacher in the state—good or bad, upstanding or felonious. Any threat to the union’s hegemony, even one as narrowly tailored as Padilla’s, will be met with maximum resistance.
But what is the assembly Democrats’ excuse? In a state where pedophiles aren’t allowed to live near a school, these legislators don’t seem to have a problem with them teaching in one. While claiming to be sympathetic to the problem, several members said SB 1530 was not quite the right bill, and they also objected to the CPC reforms.
Former state senator Gloria Romero isn’t buying the assembly committee’s excuses. Romero, now California director of Democrats for Education Reform, had especially harsh words for the four abstainers—South Bay Democrat Betsy Butler, Rialto Democrat Wilmer Amina Carter, Monterey Park Democrat Mike Eng, and Santa Barbara Democrat Das Williams. “This is how bills die,” Romero told me. “Death by silence.” She added that the abstainers are “cowering in fear” and remaining silent because they’re afraid to run afoul of the “moneyed political interests”—the teachers’ unions. No wonder CTA considers the state assembly “their house.”
Though disappointed, Alex Padilla remains undeterred and vows to get some version of the bill passed. But first he must convince his fellow legislators to develop a conscience, stand up to the special interests, and remember who they’re supposed to represent: taxpayers, parents, and children.