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Settlement Curbs Seniority-Based Layoffs in L.A.

In a development that could have implications for other school districts, the Los Angeles school board has agreed in a lawsuit settlement to curb its reliance on a strict seniority-based method for laying off teachers in the 700,000-student district.

Under the settlement, which still requires court approval, up to 45 schools meeting certain criteria would be shielded from cuts entirely. In other schools, layoffs would have to be proportional and would be capped at a certain number of teachers.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed the class-action lawsuit against the district several months back on behalf of students in three poorly performing schools that saw up to half of their staffs cut from the rolls during a budget crunch last year.

In general, schools with higher numbers of poor and minority students tend to be staffed by novice teachers and therefore to lose more teachers under seniority-based layoff rules.

The plaintiffs argued that the district's layoff criteria violated students' equal-protection rights under the California constitution by failing to provide them with the same educational opportunities as other students. Those students, the lawsuit alleged, were subjected to a revolving door of substitute teachers, teachers without experience in those grade levels, and teachers who had problems controlling classrooms, leading to a decline in instructional quality.

An important factor to keep in mind: California state law requires layoffs to be made on the basis of teacher seniority, but it allows some wiggle room for districts to divert from those criteria to meet local staffing needs for particular subjects and to meet state equal-protection requirements. In essence, the settlement requires LAUSD to take advantage of that flexibility.

The district faces a $270 million budget shortfall next year, and the district's superintendent, Ramon Cortines, anticipates 3,000 or more layoffs unless concessions are made with the teachers' union.

Reporters at the Los Angeles Times note that the settlement could have implications elsewhere. They quote a legal expert who points out that there's now a recognition that, in California at least, inequitable access to qualified teachers violates students' state constitutional rights.

In earlier posts, I mused that changes to layoff policies might be increasingly filtered through a civil rights lens. That certainly seems to be the case in Los Angeles.

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