It's nice to know that tens of millions of extra dollars will go to 37 low-income schools after the Los Angeles Unified School District settled a class-action suit on behalf of students. But the lawsuit, undertaken by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, was never about money; it was about policies that require teachers with the least seniority to be laid off first when there are staff reductions. So although the added funding will help attract and retain teachers for a few years, the lawsuit fell short of its original aim of doing away with the "last-in-first-out" policy.
The issue of who gets laid off at low-income schools goes to the heart of whether the students with the greatest needs, because of poverty and language barriers, will be taught by excellent teachers.
The schools involved in the lawsuit were staffed by a disproportionate number of new teachers; when the state's fiscal crisis hit, that meant those schools lost more teachers. Seniority rules allow more experienced teachers to transfer to other schools more easily when there are openings, and allow less-experienced teachers to be replaced when there are layoffs.
At Markham Middle School, for example, close to half the teachers were laid off in 2010. They were replaced by more senior teachers who were bumped from jobs at other schools. But Markham's leaders worried that these experienced teachers would be too set in their ways to succeed under the aggressive turnaround plan that was in place at the school. In any case, losing that many teachers at one school in one year is highly disruptive. The situation at Markham gave rise to the ACLU lawsuit.
At first, the district settled the case by agreeing not to lay off any more teachers at the affected schools, but that settlement was overturned in court because the teachers union had not been a party to it. The case was slowly making its way to trial when the cash settlement was reached this month.
In the meantime, an interesting thing had happened at Markham. According to a Times report in late 2010, test scores rose in the year the more experienced teachers took over the classrooms. Despite the outrage over the dismissal of the newer teachers, those with more seniority may have been more effective at raising achievement levels.
In other words, the debate about effective teaching may have been led off course by the bitter arguments over last-in-first-out layoff laws.
Teachers unions continue to cling to contracts that allow teachers to transfer from school to school based on seniority; a better approach would be to assign them where they are most needed. Although there's little benefit to forcing teachers onto campuses where they are a bad fit, some might find they like their new assignments.
At the same time, school districts could make jobs more attractive by significantly reducing class sizes as well as providing more aides and other support — some of which will be done at the 37 schools in the settlement. Better yet, principals should be authorized to ask their best teachers what it would take to keep them, and to use some of the money from Gov. Jerry Brown's new Local Control Funding Formula to create incentives to stay.
School districts and unions should agree to a cap on the number of effective teachers who can leave low-income schools in any given year. At the same time, flexibility should be increased in other areas so that teachers can more easily move within and between school districts. There might be suburban teachers who would like to try teaching in an urban school for a few years, but under current practices, they lose their seniority if they move to a new district. Why not start visiting-teacher and teacher-exchange agreements with neighboring districts that allow teachers to expand their horizons in both directions while retaining the option of moving back to their original schools and districts?
The waves of layoffs have all but disappeared now that money is flowing to schools under Proposition 30 and Brown's new funding formula, but that shouldn't slow the efforts to put good teachers where they are most needed. Framing the debate in outdated terms of union vs. anti-union, new teachers vs. veterans, as schools have been doing for decades, is not going to get the work done.