Battle Likely Over Teacher Seniority in L.A.


In the three years since Kristina Miller became a teacher at Alexandria Street School north of downtown Los Angeles, she has been bounced from grade to grade like a penny on a kettle drum.

The fact that she has been reassigned three times in her brief career is no reflection on her abilities as a teacher. Rather, it’s because she ranks 74th out of 87 on the school seniority list. And in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a teacher with seniority who wants a new assignment can bump a junior colleague.

“I’m a really good fifth-grade teacher,” said Miller, a 25-year-old UCLA grad. “But first grade isn’t my thing. I didn’t have the patience. I’m not into singing songs. Turning that tape player on for the first time, I just wanted to cry.”

In what experts say is a rare power, veteran teachers in Los Angeles Unified get to pick which classes they want to teach at their school. The district recently proposed a new union contract that, among many changes, would do away with the privilege. Current seniority practices are a disservice to students, district administrators argue.


The right to bump a less experienced co-worker is a cherished perk among union members of all stripes. The provision guards against favoritism and rewards loyal workers with elevated status. When it comes to layoffs, seniority rules guarantee the concept of “last hired, first fired.”

But teachers find themselves clinging to rules that seem best suited to an assembly line where workers are interchangeable even as they demand to be treated as professionals with specialized skills.

Seniority has been used in many school districts to determine who can transfer to another school to fill a vacancy. But as the school reform movement has intensified across the country, many unions have relinquished even that more limited power in exchange for a greater role in hiring decisions at their schools.

In Rochester, N.Y., committees led by teachers decide which transfers to accept, without regard to seniority. Only if the committee fails to reach a decision does seniority kick in.

“The question should not be, ‘should seniority be considered?’ ” said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Federation of Teachers. “The question ought to be, ‘What are the legitimate considerations and are there circumstances where seniority should be one of them?’ ”

In Los Angeles, teachers have only limited rights to transfer to a new school. But during bitter contract negotiations in 1993, in which teachers were forced to take pay cuts, the district agreed to throw open every teaching position every year.

Now, under the leadership of Supt. Ramon C. Cortines and Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller, the district wants to shut down that process. “The rationale is that students come first,” Miller said. “Having principals make the decision about what’s best for the students is an important part of that.”

Miller and Cortines also want to restore to principals the power to appoint department heads and the coordinators of special programs, who now are elected by teachers.

Many veteran teachers adamantly oppose giving administrators that much power, fearing that it will be abused.

Before 1993, “people who had the closest relationships with the principal got the good classes,” said Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers-Los Angeles.

Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that allowing seniority to dictate job assignments within schools is “extremely unusual” and “very problematic.”

One reason that such policies are in decline is that teachers have gained broader responsibilities on their campuses. As they do, teachers are “recognizing the importance of maintaining stability and organizational integrity at the school site,” she said.

Teacher-District Partnerships

Committees similar to those in Rochester have gained acceptance in many districts. In Milwaukee, the number of schools using such a process for hiring has grown in two years from 10 campuses to 125.

In Seattle, such committees now work with administrators to decide not only who should be hired but who should teach what and what professional development they need.

“If we had only attacked the seniority issue, I don’t think we’d have moved off of where we were before,” said Roger Erskine, the executive director of the Seattle Education Assn. “You have to create a new culture at the school that is supported by the district and that’s very serious about building trust.”

In Los Angeles, the district is proposing to end teachers’ power to choose their assignments without forging that kind of partnership.

The proposed contract also seeks to tie teacher pay to performance and offers considerably less than the 15% pay raise that teachers are seeking. As a result, the union has called the initial proposal unacceptable.

“We have no reason to talk about these things right now, because all we’re seeing is a take-back stance on the part of the district,” Higuchi said.

The issue of seniority has the potential to split the union because the membership includes thousands of teachers hired in the last few years due to enrollment growth and class-size reduction.

For veterans, the seniority protections have come to symbolize an essential bulwark against principals’ whims.

Carol Labrow, the principal at Alexandria, said she has a good relationship with her staff. But, every year, veteran teachers decide to change positions for personal reasons.

This year, about a third of her teachers are in new assignments either because of the domino effect of the seniority system or because they were newly hired. About a dozen teachers wound up in positions they did not want.

She and other principals said the system cancels the effect of training sessions on grade-level expectations, causes tensions among teachers and prevents her from matching teachers’ talents with students’ needs.

“From an administrator’s standpoint, it’s a big deal,” Labrow said. “It’s not that we want the power to make your life miserable, but to look at the overall needs of the school.”

Principals say that new accountability measures are putting them on the hot spot when it comes to student achievement. But they are reluctant to accept accountability without the power to assign jobs.

The way it works in Los Angeles now is that every spring, school principals post what is known as the “matrix.” That term refers to the classes anticipated to be needed for the next year. Then, teachers express their preferences. At year-round schools, teachers decide which “track” or schedule they want to teach.

In most cases, the principal’s hands are tied if the teacher has the proper credential for the post that he or she is seeking.

There are exceptions. Principals have the authority to assign special education teachers as well as those with special training to teach students who are learning English.

A principal at an elementary school south of downtown Los Angeles said veteran teachers generally like to teach on a “track” that most closely resembles a traditional school schedule, beginning in September. That means that “all the new hirees are in a track together and it’s like having a whole school of brand new teachers,” she said. “I pity these children. They don’t ever get a chance to have an experienced teacher.”

Class-Size Reductions

Another issue has to do with staffing the “intensive support” classes that will begin next year for students not eligible to be promoted to the next grade. Although most of the students in those classes struggle with reading, principals say they won’t be able to automatically assign the best reading teachers to them.

“The same teachers who couldn’t provide the instructional program for those kids to move to the next grade are going to just be doing more of the same,” the same principal, who asked not to be named, said.

The reassignment of teachers was accelerated by the state’s effort to reduce class sizes in early grades to 20 or fewer students; in some schools, that inspired veteran teachers at upper grades to seek reassignments.

Becki Robinson, a union vice president, said that in the past teachers were uncertain what the principal might have in mind for the coming year. One year, she developed an elaborate set of spelling lessons, including crossword puzzles, phonics drills and the like for her sixth-graders.

Before she could try them out, however, she was moved to a fifth-grade class. “I had no recourse whatsoever,” she said. “If I could have quit, I would have.”

Newer teachers say the current system is just as irrational and harmful; in addition, they say, it is one of the factors that causes many teachers to quit within the first five years on the job.

It takes several years, teachers say, to learn what to expect from students, to know what discipline techniques work.

“You don’t even know what grade level you’re going to be teaching so you don’t even know what materials to get or to keep,” said Elisa Oh, a third-year teacher at Alexandria.

Oh found out how much she didn’t know when she was switched from a third-grade class to teaching first grade. “I didn’t know that a lot of first-graders didn’t know how to read a word or know their sounds.”