Control of L.A. school funds at risk in dispute over teacher evaluations

L.A. Unified files for control over federal funds, but can't meet key requirement for receiving them.

The Los Angeles Unified School District could lose control over $57 million a year in federal funds because of a disagreement over performance evaluations with the teachers union.

The dispute centers on the overall rating of a teacher. The union, United Teachers Los Angeles, wants two options: “meets standard performance” or “below standard performance.”

The school system said it is following federal guidelines that require at least three tiers. It is proposing, in contract negotiations, to rate teachers as effective, developing or ineffective.

Money is at stake because the new evaluation system was tied to an application, due Tuesday, for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Without the waiver, the law’s rules require that 20% of federal anti-poverty funds must be spent on private, outside tutoring services and to transport students from so-called “failing schools” to other campuses. Nearly all schools that serve low-income students qualify as failing under federal rules.

School districts across the country have complained about the 20% spending mandate, saying that they could use the money more effectively if it were left under their control. The waiver does just that, allowing a school district to decide how to spend these funds.

But there are still strings attached, including a directive to have a teacher evaluation system that relies, in part, on student performance data, and a system with at least three possible grades for a teacher.

The standoff with the union was acknowledged late Tuesday in the application for an extended waiver, which was submitted jointly by L.A. Unified and five other California school districts.

L.A. Unified “has not been able to reach agreement with their bargaining partners at the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) to include three levels in their teacher evaluation system,” the letter to the U.S. Department of Education said. The district “understands that this is a requirement … and will continue to work with UTLA through the mediation and bargaining processes to include at least three levels of performance in the teacher evaluation system.”

Losing control over the funds would affect services to students at 187 “high-need district schools,” LAUSD Supt. Ramon Cortines said in a Feb. 26 letter to the union.

Among other things, the district used the funds to restore a portion of summer school programs cut during the recent recession.

“We greatly prefer that work opportunities be granted to our LAUSD teachers, due to their familiarity with our students’ needs, their effectiveness as educators, and our desire to provide these significant earning opportunities to district employees rather than outside vendors,” Cortines said in the letter.

Cortines asked the union to separate the three-level request from other subjects under negotiation, but the union has so far declined.

“UTLA is in continuing negotiations with the district and we see the … waiver as one of many issues to be addressed in bargaining,” the union said in a brief statement.

The union declined to elaborate on why it opposed a three-tiered system, but it has been wary of any changes that could undermine traditional job protections. Currently, when layoffs are necessary, teachers are let go based primarily on seniority. A different system could make it easier to lay off instructors based on performance evaluations, experts have said.

California’s seniority system for teachers was successfully challenged last year in litigation. In Vergara vs. California, an L.A. Superior Court judge threw out key teacher job protections, ruling that they resulted in harm to students. That decision is on hold pending appeal.

A federal spokeswoman said this week that the Education Department is not backing down from its teacher evaluation requirement, but it also is spacing out the review of applications through the spring and summer.

As a result, there could be time for L.A. Unified to reach an accord with the union despite this week’s deadline.

The state of Washington lost its waiver last year over teacher evaluation issues. Some states and districts have concluded the waiver is not worth the trouble.

The waiver “has impeded progress towards working more collaboratively to move our schools and classrooms forward,” according to a joint statement issued last year by the Sacramento City Unified School District and its teachers union.

Twitter: @howardblume

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