Seniority, not quality, counts most at United Teachers Los Angeles

Here’s what I did:

I went to the website for United Teachers Los Angeles, clicked on the union contract and hit “print.”

The job laid waste to a small forest of trees, producing a 347-page document the size of a fat phone book.

So why am I telling you this?

Because layoff notices just went out to 5,500 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified schools, and the UTLA contract guarantees one thing: Those notices aren’t going to the least effective teachers. Quality has nothing to do with it.

It’s all about seniority.

The teachers union has every right to scream about funding cuts and potential layoffs (even if we won’t have real numbers for several weeks at least).

But what union President A.J. Duffy won’t admit, as he raises a stink, is that when good teachers are on the chopping block and burned-out teachers are protected, it’s because of his union’s contract.


Simply put, the UTLA contract -- like a lot of others in the state -- requires that the last hired are the first fired.

And let’s not let the district off the hook. It agreed to this arrangement, which ensures that when pink slips go out, there’s no distinction between excellence and mediocrity.

After I printed out the UTLA contract, I went to the website for Green Dot Public Schools, which runs some well-regarded charter schools in the county. It was a mere 33 pages.

Steve Barr, Green Dot founder, is no fan of UTLA.

He says the union has two primary purposes that have nothing to do with educating children: preserving prohibitively expensive lifetime benefits for teachers and their families, and allowing more senior teachers to work where they want rather than where they’re needed, with tenure making even the burnouts untouchable.

“Why is the teachers union against getting every dollar into the classroom . . . and why is it against hiring and firing decisions being made at the school site?” Barr asks.

To be fair, Green Dot has only a fraction of the number of schools and teachers that L.A. Unified has, and for the most part it has the benefit of smaller campuses and less-entrenched faculties.

But its model, which gives principals more control and teachers more influence, puts the emphasis on education rather than politics and power.

In the Green Dot contract, the section on layoffs is six lines long (versus four pages in the UTLA contract).

If necessary, Green Dot takes into account a teacher’s evaluations and expertise. Only if there are no differences on those things does seniority come into play.

In L.A. Unified, there is a possibility that if the cuts are made, the best and brightest teachers will be on the unemployment line, replaced perhaps by burned-out bureaucrats who may not have been in a classroom since the Carter administration and might never have been good teachers to begin with.

“Those people left the classroom for a reason,” said Dorit Dowler, a Micheltorena Elementary parent who was among a couple of dozen protesters who turned out for Tuesday’s L.A. Unified school board meeting on the subject of budget cuts.

Another parent, Suzie Haleblian, said merit should prevail over seniority. She doesn’t want to lose good teachers at Ivanhoe Elementary -- which happens to be my daughter’s school -- just because they’re relatively new.

“Our kids get report cards,” Haleblian said. “Maybe our teachers could get report cards.”

That’s essentially what President Obama said last week when he condemned decades of failure in American public education and called for major reforms.

“It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones,” he said.

In defense of teachers, grading them can be difficult and subjective. And there’s no question that at times, good teachers need union protection from inept principals.

But we need more flexibility all around -- and less dead weight at the district headquarters -- if we’re going to handle budget cuts and have any hope of improving our schools.

At my daughter’s school, I’d much rather have the very capable principal decide on staffing rather than have decisions forced on her by Duffy and a bloated union contract.

At 347 pages of boilerplate and trivial specificity, the UTLA document manages to dehumanize teachers and crush innovation, treating them like components of an outdated machine rather than like intelligent, independent, adaptable professionals.

Every school has teachers who stand above the rest. Some of them veterans, some of them not. Why can’t they be rewarded?

If Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa weren’t so eager to lock up UTLA support in his potential run for governor, he’d be joining Obama’s call to rebuild a broken system.

And teachers and parents ticked off about a tenure policy that throws good teachers under the bus would do well to keep marching outside L.A. Unified’s headquarters.

Among the protesters Tuesday was Robert Rubisa, a third-grade teacher at Los Angeles Elementary.

With 11 years on the job, he didn’t get a layoff notice. But his wife, a fourth-grade teacher with less experience, got a pink slip.

Rubisa said he went to his union rep and suggested that teachers give back some of their sick days to help balance the budget and avoid some layoffs.

“The union rep said we should not balance the budget on teachers’ backs,” Rubisa said.

I liked Rubisa’s idea, but I’m looking through the UTLA contract now and having trouble figuring out how many sick days teachers have.

Maybe it’s here in Article IX, Hours, Duties and Work Year. No, I don’t think so.

Maybe it’s somewhere between Pages 108 and 132, under Article XII, Leaves and Absences. But where?

I’ll have to get back to you on this.