Teachers' New Power Upsets Principals


The new contract between the Los Angeles school district and the teachers union would dramatically change the way teachers are assigned to classes. Some educators fear that the most talented instructors will be prevented from helping the students who need them most.

As it stands, the settlement between United Teachers-Los Angeles and the district calls for seniority to be the primary factor in determining what elementary grade level or high school class assignment a teacher receives. Under the current system, school principals have the final word.

The provisions represent a major victory for the teachers union. It strips administrators of what union leaders say has been at times an unfair system allowing principals to reward or punish teachers through class teaching assignments.

District Supt. Sid Thompson is firmly opposed to the change. He is joined by a chorus of other principals, and some teachers, who say that expertise--not seniority--should be the guiding rule for classroom teaching assignments, one of the most important educational decisions at a school.

"I strongly feel that such decisions should not simply be a matter of length of service in the district," Thompson said. "Pure selectivity by longevity does not strike me as what is best for kids."

Thompson and other critics say the seniority issue is in direct conflict with a major objective of a long-awaited education reform program that is expected to be adopted today by the school board.

The program, known as LEARN, gives the principal power over virtually every aspect of school management. In a power-balancing arrangement, LEARN also gives teachers and parents the authority to force principals out.

The seniority issue has so riled administrators that Eli Brent, president of their union, said that LEARN "is doomed for failure if these (seniority) provisions stand."

The teachers union has agreed to waive the seniority provisions in schools that participate in the LEARN plan. Regardless, Thompson contends that it is poor policy to adopt districtwide regulations that restrict principal flexibility.

Another provision in the new contract allows teachers to select their year-round school calendar assignments by seniority. Thompson and others fear that this will lead to the most senior teachers flocking to the calendar that provides a traditional summer vacation. Students attending school on a less desirable calendar would be left with the least-experienced instructors, they say.

The seniority provisions are part of the contract forged by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown after the district and teachers union failed to reach an agreement on their own. Teachers approved the contract by a 68% margin and the school board gave preliminary approval.

However, as both sides have worked to straighten out final legal contract language in the last two weeks, Thompson has taken issue with the seniority provisions, and the opposition by principals has grown.

Under the terms of the Brown mediation, both sides have agreed to let the Assembly Speaker be the final arbiter in any contract disagreement.

Opponents of the seniority measures use an example to illustrate their fears:

In high school, they say, a seasoned teacher could decide that he or she wants to teach only advanced placement classes, widely viewed as stimulating classroom work. Students who are not high achievers would be denied the best teacher. Under the current system, a principal has the power to strike a balance in teacher scheduling. In the new system, the desires of the most senior teachers would prevail.

Union leaders contend that a principal's power to reassign teachers can be abused.

"Elementary teachers spend thousands in time and money to set up their classrooms for a particular grade level," said Denise Rockwell-Woods, union vice president. "And a principal who doesn't like you or has a friend transferring from another school can tell you: 'Too bad, you are going to another grade.' "

The contract says that if teachers invoke their seniority to switch to a new course, they must have taught that course within the past six semesters. Also, evaluations by principals of poor teachers can lead to transfers.

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