LOS ANGELES – A judge on Friday approved a sweeping overhaul of how teachers are laid off in what education reformers hail as a landmark decision to keep more effective instructors in the classroom, but unions denounce as a step toward dismantling tenure policies.
The decision was the outcome of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in February, charging that inner-city students' right to a quality education was being violated by a last-hired, first-fired layoff policy.
"This is a historic decision for the state of California," said John Deasy, deputy superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District. "The court stood and lifted up the voice of youth. That voice was loud and clear."
The ruling by Superior Court Judge William Highberger approved a settlement between the ACLU, the state and LAUSD in which the district agreed to shield 45 of its lowest performing schools from layoffs and to ensure that the redistribution of those layoffs will not be sent to a school that will experience greater than the district average of layoffs for that year.
It also calls for an incentive plan to attract and retain teachers and principals at the struggling schools.
"This settlement is about giving our most disadvantaged children a fighting chance at their schools," said Mark Rosenbaum, ACLU-SC chief counsel.
Teachers union United Teachers Los Angeles will appeal the ruling because it is unfair to pass on layoffs to teachers who have earned their jobs and skills, said Vice President Julie Washington.
"What it is really saying is that experience in teaching has no value," she said. "We feel that this remedy, if allowed to go through, will actually exacerbate the problem."
The union was supported by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who filed a brief opposing the settlement on Friday noting it "could have far reaching, unintended consequences throughout the state."
The agreement could harm the instruction quality at the 45 schools because it maintains inexperienced teachers there instead of seeking ways to bring more experienced "arguably more effective teachers," said Torlakson, who was elected last year with the endorsement of the statewide union California Teachers Association.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a long-standing proponent of school reform, said he was confident that Highberger's decision would stand and called on the union to collaborate on reform initiatives.
"No one is saying seniority shouldn't be a factor," he said at a news conference. "But in what successful system, when isn't performance taken into account at all? This isn't a radical notion."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of students at three troubled middle schools in south and central Los Angeles, which have traditionally had high turnover of teachers and administrators.
Because of that turnover, a large portion of their staffs are recent graduates who expressed a desire to work in urban schools. However, layoffs over the past two years meant that the untenured teachers were the first to receive pink slips.
More than half of the teaching staffs at Edwin Markham, John H. Liechty and Samuel Gompers middle schools lost their jobs. 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.
Students were taught by a revolving-door succession of substitutes who served as little more than babysitters, the lawsuit said. One substitute gave each student a C because she simply didn't know what grade to give them, the suit said.
In contrast, schools in more affluent areas of the district, where staffing is traditionally much more stable, lost far fewer teachers.
"Students fighting for their education, that's what it was all about," said Nick Melvoin, a teacher laid off from Markham Middle School last year. "This sends a message far outside the city that these kids matter."
The case came down to socioeconomic equality, said Michelle Fine, a social psychologist at City University of New York, during a three-day hearing on the settlement that took place this week.
"We have policies that have distributed pain and burden in a way that low-income schools have for generations paid a price," she said.
But Washington said the settlement does not attack the root causes of high turnover at these schools, including creating safe, clean working conditions so teachers don't leave. "My members have been screaming and hollering about this full issue for many years," she said.
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