Teaching Profession

L.A. Agreement Sets Limits on Seniority-Based Teacher Layoffs

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 12, 2010 6 min read
Mark D. Rosenbaum, the chief counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, smiles as news was announced last week of an agreement curbing seniority-based teacher layoffs in Los Angeles when they have a disproportionate effect on struggling schools. His organization filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District last year to stop the layoffs.

A settlement crafted last week seeking to curb the use of seniority as a factor in teacher layoffs in the Los Angeles school system could become one of the nation’s most far-reaching overhauls of the “last hired, first fired” policies common in school districts.

If approved by a judge, the settlement would shield up to 45 low-performing schools in the district from the layoff process. It also would cap cuts made in other district schools.

It comes in response to a class action against the district, filed in February by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other groups. That lawsuit alleged that civil rights of students in three schools in impoverished neighborhoods were violated when half or more of the teachers in the schools were let go under the district’s layoff procedures, as part of a cost-cutting plan last year.

The action in the 678,000-student district, the nation’s second-largest, is notable not only for the support it ended up garnering from the city’s mayor and ultimately from the district itself, but also because efforts to change layoff policies through legislation have fallen short recently in California and on Capitol Hill.

Observers said the settlement could be a model for other districts, though as the basis for future legal action its status is unclear.

It also comes at an important time for Los Angeles, which faces a projected deficit of about $270 million next year and more than $800 million by 2012.

“This settlement is groundbreaking in the way it protects youth who have been disproportionately affected and marginalized,” said John Deasy, the district’s deputy superintendent. “It is not in any way an attack on teachers’ rights or seniority; it is a recognition that we haven’t been able to address the rights of students yet.”

The city’s teachers’ union has indicated, however, that it will fight the settlement, saying that it wouldn’t alleviate a concentration of inexperienced teachers in struggling schools.

The economic crisis also has brought the issue of layoff policy to the forefront of reform debates.

Though seniority-based layoffs are common in districts throughout the nation, critics of such policies note that they tend to affect schools serving poor and minority students more because those schools are often staffed by novice teachers who haven’t earned tenure. They also tend to drive up class sizes across a district more than other layoff procedures, since more novices must be cut to achieve budget parity. (“Layoff Policies Could Diminish Teacher Reform,” Feb. 25, 2009.)

Settlement Details

Though some details of the agreement are not yet settled, the parties agreed to several major terms:

&bull Twenty-five “targeted” schools will be shielded from layoffs. The criteria for such schools include scoring low on the state-accountability measure but showing evidence of improvements in scores; and having among the highest rates of teacher turnover.

&bull The district may also select another 20 “targeted” schools that it says would be negatively or disproportionately affected by layoffs.

&bull Layoffs at all other schools would be capped to ensure that no school loses a disproportionate number of teachers.

&bull Los Angeles will develop programs to attract and retain administrators and teachers in the targeted schools, including, potentially, both monetary and nonmonetary incentives.

The settlement accords with state education law. California code requires teacher layoffs to be conducted in order of reverse seniority, but it allows districts to deviate from seniority to preserve teachers of specific subjects, and also to meet constitutional equal-protection requirements.

Under the terms of the settlement, teachers with fewer than two years of experience would still be more likely to be cut than other teachers, though the caps would mean that veterans could go before novices in some instances.

It was not immediately clear whether teacher performance would also be a factor in future cuts. Any effort to incorporate teacher performance into the equation would likely require teachers’ union approval.

Officials at United Teachers Los Angeles said in a statement that they would voice objections to the settlement in meetings with the district and the court. The settlement wouldn’t address the fundamental problem of a concentration of novices in low-income schools, the union contended.

“When the district makes a long-term policy that’s detrimental to students, we are obligated to challenge it,” according to a union statement.

The lawsuit alleged that three middle schools serving many disadvantaged students lost half or more of their teaching force under budget-cutting layoffs, resulting in a revolving door of substitute teachers. The quality of instruction deteriorated as a result, violating equal-protection provisions in the state constitution, it contended.

The plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction against the district in May preventing it from laying off beginning teachers in those schools, pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

“These are kids who went to schools where they had as many as 10 substitutes in a four-month period,” said Mark D. Rosenbaum, the chief council for the ACLU of Southern California. “They weren’t just getting unequal education; they were getting no education.”

The settlement terms go beyond those three schools and amount to a districtwide policy change.

Teacher-quality experts largely praised the settlement as a model, especially for other California districts that don’t currently take advantage of the seniority exceptions in state education code.

“While the UTLA may be fighting this, the truth is that this is a pretty fair compromise for districts that may not be able to get rid of seniority protections altogether,” said Emily Cohen, a senior policy analyst at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group. “I would think this would be a pretty palatable alternative for other districts and unions to consider.”

Whether the lawsuit could have broader legal ramifications is somewhat less clear. A settlement is not a legal precedent in the same way as a ruling, legal experts said, and applies only to the Los Angeles district. But the preliminary injunction, which found that the students’ right to an equal public education was likely violated by district policy, is another matter.

“When you win at the preliminary stage, that ruling itself, although it’s not binding, it is a legal ruling and it does create law,” said Kimberly C. West-Faulcon, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

The settlement also won the backing of the city’s mayor, Antonio R. Villaraigosa.

Mr. Villaraigosa helped prod the ACLU and its legal partners to take the case after several of the now-21 schools in his Partnership for Los Angeles Schools—a school-turnaround effort that was jointly conceived with the district—experienced severe staffing cuts last year. Two of the three schools ultimately named in the lawsuit belong to the partnership.

“In a district where assignments and transfers and layoffs all are dictated by absolute seniority, the lowest schools, the most depressed socioeconomic-status schools in communities of color, are impacted way beyond any sense of what is fair,” Mr. Villaraigosa said in an interview.

The need for a settlement became more urgent after two separate bills to overturn the seniority-based layoff provision in state code stalled in the state legislature earlier this year, he said.

Across the nation, other legislative efforts to revise seniority have not fared better. A proposal on Capitol Hill sought to require districts to base layoffs on performance rather than seniority as a condition of receiving aid under a jobs bill. The bill ultimately passed minus that provision. (“Congress Urged to Tie Aid in Jobs Bill to Elimination of Seniority-Based Firing,” May 19, 2010.)

Officials in Hartford, Conn., also are trying to retool seniority-based layoff procedures, and Rhode Island’s education commissioner last year ordered schools to base staffing on the students’ needs, rather than on strict seniority.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2010 edition of Education Week as L.A. Settles ACLU Suit on Layoffs

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