California passes education bills to reduce school discipline, hire back retirees

(The Center Square) – The California Legislature passed a series of state Department of Education-supported bills, including one aimed at reducing discipline options for students who engage in…

(The Center Square) – The California Legislature passed a series of state Department of Education-supported bills, including one aimed at reducing discipline options for students who engage in “willful defiance” against teachers.

Critics say lack of discipline in public school classrooms and a lack of tools for teachers to enforce discipline is among the reasons driving teachers out of the profession, which they say is why the legislature also passed a new bill to pay retired teachers to come back and work while still receiving their full retirement benefits. 

Currently, all students through 5th grade cannot be suspended and through 12th grade cannot be expelled for “willful defiance” — defined as “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of school staff.” If signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, SB 274, introduced by State Senator Nancy Skinner, D – East Bay, and co-sponsored by State Superintendent Tony Thurmond would extend an existing exemption to suspension for 6th through 8th grade, and create a new exemption for students in 9th through 12th grade, and extend such provisions to charter schools that had previously been exempt from the prohibition. 

““We have to educate our kids — not incarcerate them — and provide them with opportunities for learning and to succeed,” Thurmond said in an earlier public statement supporting the bill. “Taking students out of learning time through suspensions and expulsions is proven to push them toward the criminal justice system.

Education expert and California Policy Center Vice President of Government Affairs Lance Christensen disagrees with Thurmond’s assessment, noting that in the hundreds of education events he says he’s held in the last several years, a lack of discipline was one of the most consistent issues teachers would approach him about. 

“95 teachers out of 100 will tell you there is no real discipline in our public schools right now,” Christensen told The Center Square in an interview. “If you’re a teacher who has to try to teach lessons in the classroom where one or more students are intentionally disrupting the class, causing problems, being disrespectful, being rude, or harassing, bullying or disrespecting the teacher or other students, zero education will happen in that classroom.” 

The California Legislature also passed SB 765, a bill that would allow retired teachers to continue to receive their full pension and retirement benefits if they come back to teach, so long as their pay is no more than 70% of the pay those who retired the previous year received. Because California teacher pay operates on a seniority-based system, the longer one continues to teach, the more one is paid, so teacher salaries tend to peak when they retire. According to the Learning Policy Institute, California will need to hire at least 11,900 additional teachers to meet requirements that public schools offer transitional kindergarten — a bridge between preschool and kindergarten, and at least another 16,000 assistant transitional kindergarten teachers. 

“California is facing a devastating teacher shortage, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Resignation,” said State Senator Portatino, D – Burbank, who introduced the bill in a statement supporting the measure. “There are not enough individuals entering the teaching profession to counteract the number of teachers leaving the workforce.”

Christensen says that with a lack of discipline in older grades, many teachers are eager to switch to teaching much younger children, or quitting, which is reinforcing the apparent teacher shortage. 

“SB 765 — they’re doing that because they made it so hard for teachers to stay in the profession,” Christen said. “This links back to the discipline issues.” 

While returning retirees will continue to receive their pensions, a California Senate analysis found, “hiring and paying retired educators is less expensive than hiring permanent educators” because “schools and community colleges likely would not provide employment benefits to a retired employee rehired under the provisions of this bill.” 

As a result of these cost savings, SB 765 received a near-unanimous vote with just one “no” vote from a single Assembly Democrat.