LA pact to protect worst-performing schools from layoffs seen as reform driver for others

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

LA teacher layoff pact seen as model for districts

LOS ANGELES — A proposed agreement that would change how teachers are laid off in the nation’s second-largest school district is being hailed as a landmark that could pave the way for changes in urban districts across the nation.

The Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday approved a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California over teacher layoffs at three inner-city schools.

“The reform train is moving,” said Emily Cohen, district policy director of National Council of Teacher Quality. “Districts aren’t as afraid of unions anymore.”

With the recession spurring teacher reductions across the nation, the issue of how layoffs are determined has become especially contentious. Teachers’ unions have fiercely opposed most moves to change seniority policies to a system based on performance and other factors.

At the behest of two of the schools operated by the Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and a third district school, the ACLU filed a class-action suit against the district in February.

The suit charged that students were being denied their state constitutional right to a fair and adequate education because they had lost some two-thirds of their teachers to seniority-driven layoffs, leaving students largely in the hands of substitutes.

The ACLU won a temporary injunction in May that prevented more layoffs of first- and second-year teachers who form the bulk of faculties at these schools in improverished areas, which more experienced teachers tend to avoid.

The district’s teacher union, United Teachers Los Angeles, did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles settlement, which must be approved by a judge, would shield up to 45 schools from teacher layoffs for budget reasons. More than half of those schools would be the 25 lowest ranking schools according to the Academic Performance Index, a state score based on standardized tests.

The other 20 would be chronically underperforming schools that are showing improvement, with the idea being that layoffs would set back advancement at these schools instead of boosting them, said LAUSD Deputy Superintendent John Deasy.

Other schools would not be disproportionately affected because layoffs will be capped at the district average for each school.

The agreement also stipulates that teacher vacancies be filled as quickly as possible, and contains a commitment to explore incentives, such as bonuses to recruit and retain teachers and principals at poorly performing schools, with additional incentives if the school’s academic performance improves.

“This is not an abrogation or attack on teachers’ rights,” Deasy said. “It’s a historic advancement for our youth.”

Some lauded the proposed new system because it seeks to correct the root problem: a lack of ways to keep more experienced teachers at schools, which leads to high turnover and thus staffs largely new to the profession.

“Any principal wants a mix of new and experienced teachers, you don’t want any schools skewed,” said John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access and the University of California, Los Angeles. “You need a set of measures to keep teachers at a school. If they had done this, seniority-based layoffs wouldn’t have been an issue.”

The issue is especially thorny in urban districts, where teachers often burn out early at tough, inner-city schools.

In Connecticut, the Hartford Public School System has asked the state board of education to change the seniority-driven layoff mandate because the young teaching staffs at its schools in high-povery areas are being decimated. The teachers union has accused the district of “union-busting.”

The issue “focuses the question on whether these students are less deserving of a stable set of teachers than students in a more affluent school,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU. “It’s about fairness and equality.”

The “last hired, first fired” layoff model has long been a sacred cow for the vast majority of teachers’ unions. In a study earlier this year, the National Council on Teacher Quality found that of 100 large school districts, only 25 considered factors other than seniority in teacher layoffs. In 16 districts, performance carries more weight than seniority.

California is one of a handful of states where seniority-based teacher layoffs are mandated by law. LAUSD’s settlement takes advantage of a loophole that allows seniority to be circumvented to meet special staffing needs and to meet the state constitutional right to a fair and adequate education.

Two bills to eliminate seniority-based layoffs in California died in the past year. Moves in other states have succeeded: Arizona approved a law prohibiting seniority-based layoffs, while Rhode Island said layoffs at low-performing schools must be determined by school need, not seniority.

Analysts said LAUSD’s settlement is important because it will give other districts a model to follow.

“It’s a good compromise,” said Cohen of the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, D.C.

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