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.
Predictably, teachers’ unions were outraged. “This settlement will do nothing to address the inequities suffered by our most at-risk students,” said United Teachers of Los Angeles Elementary Vice President Julie Washington. “It is a travesty that this settlement, by avoiding real solutions and exacerbating the problem, actually undermines the civil and constitutional rights of our students.” New State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson—the California Teachers Association’s choice for that position—echoed the union line, stating, “The ruling could hurt students by requiring them to be taught by inexperienced teachers rather than finding ways to bring in more experienced and arguably more effective teachers.”
Some perspective is in order. Despite the winners’ elation and the losers’ laments, seniority has not been dismantled. The court ruling protects students at the 45 lowest-performing schools, but not students at the remaining 800 LAUSD campuses. Thus, the unjust seniority system remains in force in about 95 percent of the district’s schools. The LAUSD recently announced that it could lay off almost 4,500 teachers—all based on seniority—in June. No doubt many fine teachers will leave the profession, while many of lower quality stay on. To the detriment of hundreds of thousands of school children, seniority remains alive and well in the Los Angeles public schools. For now, the winners are the children at the bottom-performing schools, who will not lose any teachers due to seniority. The losers are the children at all the other district schools, which will incur more layoffs to accommodate the bottom 45. These schools will no doubt lose some excellent teachers.
Judge Highberger’s ruling, then, isn’t quite the “landmark decision” some claim it to be. But if it ultimately becomes the first step in dismantling a system that discriminates against good teachers—and ultimately children—it may yet earn that status.
Larry Sand is president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network.