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This article is reprinted from City Journal.
Like many other cities, Los Angeles is subject to a state education code requiring that, in the event of teacher layoffs, the last hired is the first fired. Because they invariably have a high percentage of new hires, the lowest-performing schools usually take the brunt of the layoffs under this system, destabilizing them further by requiring a revolving door of substitutes.
When the Los Angeles Unified School District, facing municipal belt-tightening, sent out “reduction in force” notices in 2009, three middle schools—Gompers, Liechty, and Markham, each ranking in the bottom 10 percent of California schools by academic performance—were particularly hard hit. Sixty percent of the teachers at Liechty, 48 percent of the teachers at Gompers, and 46 percent of the teachers at Markham received them. By contrast, the LAUSD sent layoff notices to just 17.9 percent of its teachers system-wide. The notices resulted in a large number of teacher vacancies at all three schools. By 2010, according to an AP story, “More than half of the teaching staffs at Edwin Markham, John H. Liechty and Samuel Gompers middle schools lost their jobs . . . at Markham, the layoffs included almost the entire English department along with every 8th grade history teacher.”
Alleging that the last-hired, first-fired policy violated poor students’ right to a quality education, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a class-action lawsuit. Last month, Superior Judge William Highberger ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The judge cited a previously unacknowledged clause of the education code stating that a district may deviate from seniority “for purposes of maintaining or achieving compliance with constitutional requirements related to equal protection of the laws.”
According to the ACLU, “The settlement reached between the plaintiffs and LAUSD and the Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, protects students in up to 45 Targeted Schools in the unfortunate event of budget-based teacher layoffs.” Determined annually, the 45 schools will be comprised of 25 under-performing and difficult-to-staff schools. Up to 20 additional schools will be selected for protection from layoffs based on the “likelihood that the school will be negatively and disproportionately affected by teacher turnover.” Many, like incoming LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, were thrilled, calling the decision “historic.” Others claimed that it was the beginning of the end of the seniority-based staffing system.
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