Tempest in a Seniority Teapot?

Does a recent court ruling in Los Angeles really signal the beginning of the end of an unjust teacher seniority system? Or does the decision amount to nothing more than a zero-sum game, favoring some at the expense of others?

A recent “landmark decision” in Los Angeles is said to have made inroads into the way staffing decisions are made in the city’s massive school district. In fact, some say the decision will have national ramifications. But are these claims valid?

When teachers lose their jobs due to layoffs, the state education code says that they must be done by seniority. Hence the last hired is the first fired. Typically, the lowest performing schools are the most impacted because they invariably have a much greater percentage of new hires.

This situation came to a head in 2009 when three Los Angeles Unified School District middle schools were particularly hard hit. “The three middle schools at issue, Samuel Gompers Middle School (‘Gompers’), John H. Liechty Middle School (‘Liechty’), and Edwin Markham Middle School (‘Markham’), are each ranked in the bottom 10% of schools in California in terms of academic performance. During a 2009 reduction in force (‘RIF’), LAUSD sent RIF notices to 60% of the teachers at Liechty, 48% of the teachers at Gompers, and 46% of the teachers at Markham. These figures are in contrast with the fact that LAUSD only sent notices to 17.9% of all of its teachers. The RIFs resulted in a large number of teacher vacancies at all three schools.”

When vacancies like these happen en masse, a school becomes destabilized because a revolving door of substitutes is called to fill the vacated classrooms. Finding this situation intolerable, the American Civil Liberties Union spun into action and filed a class action lawsuit.

Just last month, citing a part of the education code that says that a district may deviate from seniority (f)or purposes of maintaining or achieving compliance with constitutional requirements related to equal protection of the laws, Superior Judge William Highberger ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

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 and provides support and resources aimed at stabilizing and improving these schools, including retention incentives for teachers and principals. The Targeted Schools will be determined annually and will include 25 under-performing and difficult-to-staff schools that have suffered from staff retention issues yet are starting to make positive strides. In addition, up to 20 schools will be selected based on the likelihood that the school will be negatively and disproportionately affected by teacher turnover. To ensure that any impact from preserving teacher positions at the Targeted Schools is fairly distributed, the settlement provides that no school at or above the district-wide average of layoffs will be negatively affected.”

Many, like incoming LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, were thrilled, crowing that the decision was “historic.” Others claimed that it was the beginning of the end of seniority as a method of making staffing decisions.

Predictably, the 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 Tom Torlakson, who was the California Teachers Association’s choice for that position, toed 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.”

But let’s take a step back and look at what really happened. Despite the winners’ elation, seniority has not been dismantled at all. This archaic way of deciding who stays and who goes is still very much with us. While the ruling does protect students at the lowest 45 performing schools, students at the rest of the 750 LAUSD campuses will still lose some excellent teachers only because they were the last hired.

Hence, the onerous seniority rules are still in force in about 95% of the district’s schools.

The winners: the children at the bottom performing schools who will not lose any teachers due to the seniority system.

The losers: the children at all the other district schools who will absorb the brunt of the decision.

Hardly a landmark decision in my book. But if it’s ultimately shown to be the first small but necessary step in the complete dismantling of a system that discriminates against good teachers and ultimately children, then I will happily reconsider my position.

Last week, I was invited to go on a national television program and explain my views on the ruling. The producer’s plan was to have a second party who would malign the judge’s decision and defend the union position which supports district-wide seniority. Interestingly, the segment was canceled because despite great efforts, no willing party could be found to take the union side. Apparently, many calls and emails to UTLA and CTA were not returned.

I can only assume that the unions know that promoting an unfair and child-unfriendly position would further erode their already dwindling public respect.

The other losers in this case: the teachers unions, who are starting to see their vise-like grip on public education very slowly beginning to slip away.

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