Should suspension be an option in a school’s toolkit when a student consistently disrupts an entire class? Will California be able to continue funding teacher pensions, and if so what will they look like?
These questions will not find their solution at the local level because they concern state law. However, they still have local impact. Local education leaders got the chance to voice these concerns to a representative from the Association of California School Administrators, an advocacy group that lobbies in Sacramento for education laws that with policy that actual educators want.
ACSA is a statewide program with local branches. The branch here is called the East Kern Charter, which includes the Ridgecrest area as well as Mojave, California City, and Tehachapi. The Charter meets quarterly, and Ridgecrest hosted their Monday meeting at Murray Middle School.
Because the location was in Ridgecrest, it mainly drew a crowd of Ridgecrest education leaders, primarily principals and directors form Sierra Sands Unified School District and Ridgecrest Charter School. The main focus of the meeting was an hour long, face-to-face conversation with ACSA legislative advocate Ivan Carrillo.
Carrillo informed the educators of upcoming legislative changes being discussed in Sacramento and ACSA’s position on them, but quickly opened the floor up to hearing what the local leaders of the Charter were concerned about. Some of the main issues which came up included financial support from the state, suspension legislation, and funding for teacher pensions.
Suspension legislation for willful defiance
Carrillo informed the Charter that an upcoming and controversial piece of legislation is Senate Bill 607, which addresses suspension policy.
California allows for suspending students due to a number of reasons, such as physical violence or selling drugs, but one of the more vague reasons for suspension is called “willful defiance.” The letter of the law describes it as a student who, “disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.”
Current state law allows suspension for willful defiance, but does not allow willful defiance suspensions for grades K – 3. The K-3 exclusion is set to expire on July 1, 2018.
SB 607, introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner and approved by the California Senate, will introduce a permanent ban on willful defiance suspensions for grades K – 5 and a temporary ban on willful defiance suspensions for grades 6 – 12 which expires on July 1, 2023.
A press release concerning SB 607 says, “Recognizing that student suspensions can do more harm than good Senate Bill 607 eliminates willful defiance as grounds for suspension and expulsion for students grades K through 12th.”
Though SB 607 has already been approved, there’s still time to amend it. Carrillo indicated that there’s no solution with universal approval, but ACSA has agreed to supposed a ban on willful defiance suspensions for grades K – 6, but allow willful defiance suspensions for grades 7-12.
If approved, these changes could come into effect in the next school year.
Concerning the disagreements on willful defiance suspensions, Carrillo said, “We have a lot of folks who say that this is bad policy and we shouldn’t be suspending students based on something so arbitrary.”
On the other hand, he said there’s another side who says, “You obviously haven’t been in the classroom, and you don’t know what we deal with day to day.”
Murray Middle School vice principal John Cosner asked what alternative they’re suggesting instead of suspending disruptive students, and Carrillo said they are not recommending any alternative.
Cosner said that if there was a functional alternative, then probably everyone would be on board with ending willful disobedience suspensions. However, at the moment teachers need a solution for a student who is disrupting the class for everyone else. He said he would like to see the state support research-based alternatives for willful defiance suspensions.
“The problem is that sometimes there are students who prohibit the teachers from doing their job,” Cosner said. “Right now, we don’t know how to get that kid to learn. But we know we can get everyone else to learn if we can remove him. But if we can get both, all of us in this room would want to do that.”
Carrillo noted that some schools in big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles who have already gotten rid of willful defiance suspensions on their own and they’ve been able to make their own alternative strategies
Cosner replied, “And would you like our numbers to reflect theirs? Their graduation rates are less. Their college entry rates are less. To me, that’s an inverse argument to what they want.”
Inyokern Elementary Principal Beverly Ewbank added that many of the school districts in big cities are able to skirt around suspension rates by not sending a kid home, but sending a kid to a separate room with a teacher so that it doesn’t count as a suspension, a policy that would require additional resources many SSUSD schools don’t often have.
Carrillo said that one of the main arguments of those who support the banning of willful defiance suspensions is that after the ban of willful defiance suspensions for grades K – 3, schools were able to find alternative solutions.
SSUSD special projects coordinator Lisa Decker said, “What happens is in the kindergarten level, those kids are removed from the room and spending the day with the principal.”
She said that technically they’re not being suspended, but they’re still being taken away from the class.
The Charter expressed sympathy for the student being removed from class in willful defiance suspensions, but also acknowledged the need for the lesson to carry on for the rest of the students in the class.
Teacher pension funds
Carrillo said that there are people both within ACSA and in legislation who think teacher pensions are too large and need to be reworked, but he said that ACSA overall has attempted to push back on this. However, he said there are ACSA members who say that realistically, teacher pension funds cannot continue at the same rates.
In a brief moment of levity, SSUSD assistant superintendent of human resources David Ostash said,”Here’s the thing, you’re not going to get any objective input here because most of the people here are deeply embedded in the system.”
Another charter member laughed and said, “Can you just wait a few more years?”
Levity aside, Ostash’s point was that it’s unlikely to get an objective view of pension adjustments to a group of people with decades of experience working towards that pension. Still, Ostash acknowledged the problem of a large generation of baby boomers reaching pension age in a system already under financial strain.
“Suffice it to say that it’s no different than the Social Security quagmire,” Ostash said. “The obvious is going to have to happen. You’re going to have to serve longer and you’re going to have to look at making tweaks.”
Charter members mentioned that retirement works differently for teachers for public school teachers. They don’t get Social Security, and they don’t make as much money as other professions in the private sector. To make up for that, they’re assured a comfortable pension fund for retirement.
Murray Middle School principal Kirsti Smith said, “One of the sacrifices that educators make is that during the 30 years of our working, we don’t make as much money as other professions. So our reward at the end is that we’re still doing OK.”
Carrillo said that experts are confident they’ll reach full funding for the system by 2046, but that’s largely based on less funding for districts which means cutting programs and less support.
“It’s another issue we’re struggling with,” Carrillo said, indicating ACSA wants to defend teacher pensions but also wants to be realistic about maintaining strong funding for schools.
Ostash said, “Most of us in this room can’t figure it out, and most of the politicians can’t either. It’s going to have to be some smart mathematicians who pull it all together.”