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ABCs of school reform

A RECENT STUDY SHOWS HOW union contracts can hamper school improvement -- and provides another compelling reason why having L.A.'s mayor run the schools could help.

The study by the nonprofit New Teacher Project found that teacher contracts place seniority over what’s best for students, especially by favoring longtime teachers for desired teaching slots over newer teachers who might be better for the job. That’s true even if the more senior teacher is needed in another school.

Poor and minority students have long borne the brunt of these rules, because teachers often want jobs in more affluent communities. Though disadvantaged students need more educational support, they end up with the least experienced teachers.

The accountability movement is putting the spotlight on these long-standing practices, but unions have adamantly resisted change. A strong mayor might be able to turn the tide. In October, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reached an accord with the teachers union that eliminates job assignment by seniority. The new contract also lengthens the school year by two days and the workday by 10 minutes.

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That kind of tough negotiating is possible from a school board, but unlikely. The fragmented nature of school boards, whose members are little known and run low-budget campaigns, allows contributions from unions to play a disproportionate role in elections.

Last week, in separate speeches to business groups, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered his strongest statements since taking office about the need for mayoral control over schools. The mayor is right in saying that unions and the school board will fight to maintain the status quo, and he will need extraordinary support from business and the public. They should provide it.


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