Published Online: April 27, 2010
Published in Print: April 28, 2010, as Schwarzenegger Backs Bill to End Seniority-Based Layoffs

Schwarzenegger Backs Bill to End Seniority-Based Layoffs

Civil Rights Groups Argue Current System Harms Poor, Minority Students

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California has thrown his support behind a proposed state law that would prevent teacher layoffs based on seniority, a stance that’s drawn the ire of teachers’ unions while being lauded by civil rights activists.

Mr. Schwarzenegger appeared April 20 at Edwin Markham Middle School in the Watts area of Los Angeles, which lost more than half its teachers in layoffs last year because they were largely new hires.

“Several teachers of the year have gotten pink slips. How can that happen if they are award-winning teachers?” the governor told an auditorium full of cheering children. “It is very important we change the system.”

The California Teachers Association, which represents teachers statewide, and United Teachers Los Angeles, the union in the Los Angeles Unified School District, have denounced the bill proposed by state Sen. Robert Huff, a Republican.

The unions said the proposal infringes on teachers’ rights while glossing over the issue of underfunded public education.

The state has cut education funding by $17 billion over the past two years, resulting in the layoff of 16,000 teachers last year. Another 26,000 teachers have received layoff notices this year.

Split Responses

UTLA President A.J. Duffy said districts already have the ability to retain junior teachers if they have special training and experience.

Los Angeles Superintendent Ramon Cortines said he would support legislation that gives districts flexibility to retain talented teachers, as long as the process is developed with teachers’ unions and a task force in his district on effective teachers.

NAACP California state conference President Alice Huffman and other civil rights leaders said seniority-based layoffs disproportionately affect poor minority students because inner-city schools are often staffed with newer teachers.

“You deserve the same resources as an all-white school,” Ms. Huffman told the students at the middle school.

Gov. Schwarzenegger and other supporters of the proposed legislation pointed to the effects of seniority-based layoffs at Markham as well as two other inner-city schools that lost 50 percent to 75 percent of their teaching staffs last year.

The schools are the subject of a lawsuit by the ACLU of Southern California, which claims the 680,000-student Los Angeles district is violating students’ state constitutional right to a quality education by not adequately staffing classrooms.

Younger Teachers Hit

Markham Principal Tim Sullivan said last year’s layoffs devastated his team of “rock stars”—mostly younger new teachers eager to bring cutting-edge instructional methods to one of the city’s lowest-performing campuses.

Now, many classes are being taught by a bewildering succession of substitutes, leaving students with no stability in lessons. One substitute gave all students C’s because she didn’t know how to grade them, according to the lawsuit.

Markham English teacher Nicholas Melvoin said the first question jaded students ask teachers is how long they’re going to stay. Mr. Melvoin, 24, said his case is typical. After graduating from Harvard University, he was enthusiastic about going to work at a school like Markham. In his first year on the job, he got laid off.

Determined to stay at the school, he signed on in September as a long-term substitute at lower pay. He was rehired in January, only to receive a layoff notice in March.

Mr. Sullivan said schools in more-affluent neighborhoods simply haven’t been hit as hard because their teaching staffs are more stable and thus more senior.

“I can’t go through this process of teacher decimation for the second straight year,” he said. “I need an entire staff.”

Vol. 29, Issue 30, Page 18

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