LA teachers union will challenge layoff pact

The Los Angeles teachers union is promising to challenge a proposed agreement that would change how teachers are laid off in the nation's second-largest school district, while education experts hail it as a landmark that could pave the way for changes in urban districts across the nation.

The settlement, which must be approved by a judge, would shield up to 45 underperforming schools from teacher layoffs for budget reasons. It also stipulates that vacancies be filled as quickly as possible, and contains a commitment to explore incentives, such as bonuses, to recruit and retain teachers and principals at poorly performing schools, with additional incentives if the school's academic performance improves.

The agreement stems from a lawsuit by American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California over teacher layoffs at three inner-city schools. The group had filed a class-action suit against the Los Angeles Unified School District in February, saying that mandated seniority-driven layoffs led to the three schools shedding some two-thirds of their teachers, which left students largely in the hands of substitutes.

The ACLU said students were being denied their state constitutional right to a fair and adequate education. It won a temporary injunction in May that prevented more layoffs of first- and second-year teachers who form the bulk of faculties at these schools in improverished areas, which more experienced teachers tend to avoid.

"Any principal wants a mix of new and experienced teachers, you don't want any schools skewed," said John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access and the University of California, Los Angeles. "You need a set of measures to keep teachers at a school. If they had done this, seniority-based layoffs wouldn't have been an issue."

With the recession spurring teacher reductions across the nation, the issue of how layoffs are determined has become especially contentious. Teachers' unions have fiercely opposed most moves to change seniority policies to a system based on performance and other factors.

Some education reformers lauded the proposed settlement because it seeks to correct the root problem: a lack of ways to keep more experienced teachers at schools, which leads to high turnover and thus staffs largely new to the profession.

"The reform train is moving," said Emily Cohen, district policy director of National Council of Teacher Quality. "Districts aren't as afraid of unions anymore."

But the city's teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, said it would be meeting with the school board and the ACLU to review the terms of the proposed settlement and to voice its objections. "When the district makes a long-term policy that's detrimental to students, we are obligated to challenge it," it said.

The settlement shields teachers from layoffs at the city's 25 lowest ranking schools according to the Academic Performance Index, a state score based on standardized tests, and another 20 chronically underperforming schools showing improvement, with the idea being that layoffs would set back advancement at these schools instead of boosting them, said LAUSD Deputy Superintendent John Deasy.

Other schools would not be disproportionately affected because layoffs will be capped at the district average for each school.

The union said it was concerned that the agreement would leave low-performing schools with a higher concentration of less experienced teachers. It also said "state law already gives schools districts flexibility in layoff procedures to best meet the needs of students" and "the settlement does nothing to solve ongoing staffing problems at hard-to-staff schools."

California is one of a handful of states where seniority-based teacher layoffs are mandated by law. LAUSD's settlement takes advantage of a loophole that allows seniority to be circumvented to meet special staffing needs and to meet the state constitutional right to a fair and adequate education.

Seniority-based layoffs are especially thorny in urban districts, where teachers often burn out early at tough, inner-city schools.

In Connecticut, the Hartford Public School System has asked the state board of education to change the seniority-driven layoff mandate because the young teaching staffs at its schools in high-povery areas are being decimated. The teachers union has accused the district of "union-busting."

The issue "focuses the question on whether these students are less deserving of a stable set of teachers than students in a more affluent school," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU. "It's about fairness and equality."

The "last hired, first fired" layoff model has long been a sacred cow for the vast majority of teachers' unions. In a study earlier this year, the National Council on Teacher Quality found that of 100 large school districts, only 25 considered factors other than seniority in teacher layoffs. In 16 districts, performance carries more weight than seniority.

Two bills to eliminate seniority-based layoffs in California died in the past year. Moves in other states have succeeded: Arizona approved a law prohibiting seniority-based layoffs, while Rhode Island said layoffs at low-performing schools must be determined by school need, not seniority.

Analysts said LAUSD's settlement is important because it will give other districts a model to follow.

"It's a good compromise," said Cohen, of the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, D.C.