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Teacher Seniority On the Ropes

If a judge approves the settlement of a lawsuit proposed by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, teacher layoffs would be subjected to striking new rules. In a front-page story on Oct. 6, the Los Angeles Times reported that the sacrosanct last-hired, first-fired policy would be replaced by a strategy requiring no school would lose a disproportionate number of teachers ("Settlement limits L.A. teachers' seniority protection").

The tentative agreement does not eliminate seniority entirely in considering layoffs. However, it undercuts the traditional basis for issuing pink slips. The impetus for the change was a lawsuit filed in February by the ACLU and other legal groups accusing the state and the LAUSD of denying students equal access to a public education. At the time, the district had issued layoff notices to 3,100 teachers, with almost two-thirds of these teachers assigned to three of the city's worst performing middle schools located in the inner-city.

The ACLU and its co-plaintiffs argued that the substitute teachers hired to replace the last-hired teachers deprived poor children of an equal education compared to other schools in the district, where teachers with more seniority were spared. Realizing that the least experienced teachers tend to be found in schools located in the poorest parts of the city, the board of education decided to settle.

Because of its size and diversity, the LAUSD will be closely watched as a model for other urban districts across the country. Even if the settlement proves to be on solid legal ground (see last paragraph), it is arguable that it will lead to improved learning. I say that because it's hard to know to what degree experience is associated with effectiveness. The plaintiffs themselves seem confused about this factor. On one hand, they argue that inexperienced teachers are not as effective as experienced teachers. But on the other hand, they want to eliminate - or at least reduce - seniority as a factor. They can't have it both ways.

Supporters of the settlement counter that all the plaintiffs want is a fairer distribution of teacher talent throughout the LAUSD. As things stand, the newest (and presumably least effective) teachers are clumped in schools with the highest percentage of poor students. That pattern ostensibly violates the right of all students to an equal education. But we know that some new teachers are outstanding and some veteran teachers are not. As a result, it's too soon to know how much pedagogical confidence to place on the terms of the settlement.

The day after it ran the first article, the Los Angeles Times published another front-page story about the controversy, reporting that UTLA threatened to sue because it was not part of the negotiation ("UTLA may sue to block layoff change"). The ACLU responded that UTLA had voluntarily made that decision. If the ACLU is correct, then UTLA risks losing credibility with the public, whose support is vital. It's one thing to legally challenge a settlement, but it's quite another to do so when a ploy has been used. This is an example of how not to win friends and influence people.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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