Court Decision Ends "Last Hired, First Fired" in Los Angeles Schools

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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Pink slipping teachers according to seniority is on the way out the door in Los Angeles—at least at schools in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger gave the go-ahead on Friday to a settlement that limits the use of seniority in teacher layoffs at 45 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses with high staff turnover. The settlement also decrees that layoffs at the rest of the district's schools must be equitably distributed.

The case, Reed v. State of California, et al., pitted the ACLU against the city's teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. Massive budget cuts in LAUSD over the past few years have led to the layoffs of thousands of newer teachers. The ACLU argued that given these cuts, LAUSD's agreement with UTLA—the last hired, first fired method of doling out layoff notices—unfairly targets students attending schools in disadvantaged communities.

Teachers currently have the right to refuse to work at certain campuses, which makes schools in both East and South Los Angeles hard to staff. Teacher turnover in those neighborhoods has historically been high, meaning that some campuses are continuously staffed by a large percentage of brand new teachers. According to the ACLU press release

While many schools around the state lost zero teachers to the budget crisis, more than half of the teaching staffs at Gompers, Liechty and Markham middle schools lost their jobs as permanent teachers. At Liechty, 72 percent of the teachers received layoff notices; at Markham, the layoffs included almost the entire English department along with every 8th grade history teacher.

Sometimes, those newer teachers are, according to standardized test results, more effective in the classroom than their more senior counterparts. This leaves students who need help the most with teachers who have years of work experience but aren't necessarily getting the job done.

UTLA plans to appeal the decision, saying it doesn't solve the problems and inequities at hard-to-staff schools. In a statement on their website, UTLA claims

The settlement was the backroom work of soon-to-be superintendent John Deasy (who, by the way, just gave himself an $80,000 raise), Mayor Villaraigosa, the ACLU, and some School Board members. They claimed to be defending students’ constitutional rights, but clearly their real goal was to attack seniority and weaken the union. As the chaos that the settlement would cause became clear, they went forward anyway, intent on getting a “win” and willfully ignoring the damage it would do to our schools.

Mayor Villaraigosa acknowledges that the lawsuit was filed at his request. However, he said the "decision is a victory for all Los Angeles students," and applauded the judge for "understanding just how difficult it is to find teachers who are up to the challenge of teaching in communities long-plagued by drugs, abuse, violence and gangs." The mayor did not address how to encourage teachers to not jump ship from schools in those communities in the first place.

In the meantime, LAUSD is going to be putting this decision to the test. The district is facing another round of budget cuts—to the tune of $400 million. School districts across the country that have been looking for ways to break teacher tenure are sure to have an eagle eye on how this case plays out over the next few months.

photo (cc) via Flickr user bpbailey