LOS ANGELES—Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa slammed it as "cynical political manipulation," Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy termed it shameful, but for the California Teachers Association, it was a victory.
The defeat Wednesday of a proposed law that would have made it easier for school districts to fire teachers in cases of sexual and other egregious misconduct has shone a spotlight on the strong sway of the California Teachers Association, widely considered the state's most politically influential labor union with more than 325,000 members.
SB 1530 had previously sailed through the Senate, but ran into a stepped up lobbying effort by the CTA at Wednesday's hearing of the Assembly Education Committee. Teachers from around the state travelled to Sacramento to testify, successfully arguing that the bill violated teachers' right to due process.
The bill garnered five votes. It needed six to exit committee to head to the Assembly floor.
"Clearly, they have a powerful voice," said a disappointed Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, who authored the bill. "It made an impact."
Padilla introduced the bill earlier this year, spurred by the case of a veteran teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles who was arrested in January on 32 lewd conduct charges involving school children.
Prosecutors say Mark Berndt blindfolded students and fed them his semen by spoon and smeared on cookies in what he told them was a "tasting game."
He has pleaded not guilty.
Police found hundreds of photos of pupils and said he'd been engaged in the activity for years. The case only came to light when a drugstore photo technician spotted the odd images and reported them to authorities.
Headlines about the case sparked numerous reports of sexual misconduct by teachers around the state, and highlighted how difficult it is to remove them, typically taking years and incurring hefty legal fees through a labyrinthine process.
The bill would have truncated the process, allowing a school board to make the final dismissal decision after a recommendation by an administrative law judge and permitted evidence more than four years old to be used. It would have also allowed a teacher to retain counsel and present a defense and witnesses, request a hearing by an independent arbiter and to appeal the board's decision to a court.
Union officials said the bill was changing a system that already worked. They particularly objected to the provision where the teacher would have a hearing before a single administrative law judge, whose decision would be only advisory and the school board would have the final say.
"Why should management be given new authority to ignore an administrative law judge?" said Michael Stone, who teaches middle school in Capistrano Unified in Orange County.
Padilla said the bill was balanced between protecting children and ensuring teachers' rights and he had already amended the bill to address union concerns.
Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, said she supported the bill in part because of its narrow focus on cases where teachers are accused of sexual misconduct, violence and drugs against children, but other committee members said that although the current system was slow, it largely worked.
"Virtually all of it can be done under existing law," said Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo.
Padilla said the opposition took him aback because the bill had not encountered such a backlash in the Senate.
"It surprised me a bit," he said. "I tried to answer everything."
Some observers saw politics at play. The CTA is one of the state's most lavish spenders on political campaigns and has access to a huge swath of voters.
Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, said in a statement that the committee displayed "a singular lack of courage and conviction" in failing to challenge the CTA.
"We needed our leaders in Sacramento to put the interest of our students above their interest in preserving the status quo," he said.
In a joint statement, Los Angeles Unified's Deasy and school board members Monica Garcia, Nury Martinez and Tamar Galatzan also questioned opponents' motives.
"Is it really more important for them to satisfy union demands than to change a system that is not in the best interest of parents and children?" they asked.
Teachers refuted the contention that politics played a role, or that they are protecting abusive colleagues. The bill was simply flawed and unnecessary, they said.
"We go into this profession because we care about people, we care about students," said James Harper, a high school teacher in Elk Grove Unified in Sacramento. "Because of that, we don't want teachers in our profession who are not in that mindset, either."