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Civil Rights Concerns Over Seniority-Based Layoffs

Not long ago, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Los Angeles schools system and California over its policy for laying off teachers. The last-in, first-out system decimated teachers in a number of high-poverty, high-minority schools and, the group charged, deprived students of their state constitutional right to an education. ACLU later won an injunction in the case.

At the time, I wondered if layoffs would be increasingly viewed through this type of civil-rights lens. Now along comes an analysis from the Center on Reinventing Public Education that analyzes teacher-experience data from the 15 largest districts in California.

In 2008-2009, the paper states, teachers at risk of layoffs were indeed concentrated in the poorest schools. Schools in the highest poverty quartile, it found, were likely to see 25 percent more teacher layoffs than the quartile with the lowest concentration of poor students. Even more troubling, schools with the most minority students could lose 60 percent more of their teaching staff than those with the fewest such students.

Ammunition for civil rights groups? We won't really know, unless the ACLU mounts a larger-scale lawsuit or other groups like the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights take this up in the courts.

Even then, this is potentially complicated territory. One of the important civil-rights voices, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, counts the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association as members. Neither of those teachers' unions is enthusiastic about ending seniority-based layoffs as part of the $23 billion jobs bill now winding its way on Capitol Hill.

And in fairness to the unions, you'd need good teacher evaluations to institute an alternative layoff system and most states and districts don't have those.

Still, having this kind of data out there must be uncomfortable for the Obama administration. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has pushed for the jobs bill but hasn't endorsed conditioning the aid on layoff reform.

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