A major showdown in Sacramento has pitted education allies against each other, with school reformers and school districts desperately trying to fend off union attempts to water down teacher evaluations and accountability.

Assembly Bill 5 is backed by teachers unions, one of the most powerful lobbies in Sacramento. On the other side, the California State PTA, reformers such as Education Trust-West and EdVoice, plus the organizations representing school administrators, districts and trustees argued the bill would harm students. Wednesday afternoon, the bill was being debated by the Senate Education Committee.

AB 5 would overhaul teacher evaluations and would force each district to negotiate how they evaluate teachers. It would add one performance level -- excellent -- to the current satisfactory and unsatisfactory categories. And instead of being required, state standardized test scores would be optional in measuring teachers.

Proponents hail the bill as progress. "I think it's an extremely positive step in the right direction," state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson said. By making reviews more rigorous, comprehensive and frequent, the bill would improve education, he said. For instance, school boards would have to evaluate teachers on a continuing basis, measuring how well they accomplish specific objectives based on multiple observations by trained evaluators.


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Opponents are adamant in their criticism. "The bill is a big step backward," said Bill Lucia of EdVoice, a network of parents, reformers and funding organizations. In addition, they say the bill would cost already-strapped school districts millions of dollars. Only 20 percent of districts, with the lowest-performing schools, would be initially reimbursed by the state for the additional costs of conducting evaluations.

Lucia said that the bill, by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar, "got hijacked by people who do not want to use data in a meaningful way to look at the job effectiveness of adults."

For 40 years, the state has required that teachers be judged in part on how well their students meet grade-level standards. By forcing districts to negotiate over how they evaluate teachers, the legislation would have in effect weakened evaluation procedures, opponents said.

Without adding another burden on districts, already "it's hard enough to use student performance to measure teachers," said Wesley Smith, superintendent of the Morgan Hill School District. "Anytime it has to be bargained, there are inherent challenges." His district has created a task force on how to possibly use student data in evaluating teachers.

But he argued that AB 5 would hurt California's chances to both qualify for federal funds and to escape from stricter punishment by the federal No Child Left Behind law of underperforming schools.

Stephen McMahon, president of the San Jose Teachers Association, said he believes the bill would help improve evaluations.

The union is working with the district on creating "a fundamentally different teacher evaluation system," McMahon said, "one that enhances the teaching of all educators while also identifying and removing those that should not be in the profession."

However, he added, if the bill prohibits administrators from basing reviews on unannounced classroom visits, as critics say it would, that "goes against what we believe a quality evaluation system should contain."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.