By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., March 4 (Reuters) - California Republican lawmakers on Wednesday announced a package of bills to dramatically change the way public school teachers are hired, fired and evaluated, embracing controversial education reforms in the most populous U.S. state.
The bills, which put the Assembly's Republican minority on a collision course with the state's powerful teachers union, are the first in a series of policy initiatives planned under the caucus' new leader, Assembly member Kristin Olsen of Modesto.
"We started with education because it's so key to our long-term economic success," Olsen said in an interview.
The package would enshrine into law several reforms called for by plaintiffs in a lawsuit, Vergara v California, that last year led a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to declare unconstitutional several laws meant to protect teachers' jobs.
The California Teachers Association slammed the package, saying it was a response to a court case that is still under appeal.
"These bills are ill-conceived and premature," said union spokesman Frank Wells.
The union has previously expressed profound disappointment with the court case and the proposed reforms, saying they would harm students and teachers.
California's legislature is overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, many of whom would be highly unlikely to give Republicans the votes they would need to get the measures through.
However, more Democrats are signing on to the education reform cause, and Olsen said Republicans hope to reach across the aisle on at least some of their proposals.
For example, she said, Democrats might support a bill in the package that removes a cap on the number of high school students studying the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics who can take courses at the community college level.
Another bill that might gain some bipartisan support would repeal a union-supported law that caps the amount of money that school districts are allowed to set aside as reserves, Olsen said.
Other bills in the package are more controversial. Among them are a measure to make teachers wait three years instead of two to be awarded the lifetime job protections of tenure, and another would weaken tenure by allowing teachers to be dismissed if they are rated ineffective for two years running.
Other bills would penalize school districts that do not include pupil progress in teacher job evaluations, and eliminate the so-called last-hired, first-fired rule that requires districts to lay off the newest teachers first when job cutbacks are made.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Eric Beech)