Op- Ed in the Sacramento Bee by Darrell Steinberg | Sen. Steinberg is president pro tempore of the California Senate.
Sunday, Jun. 13, 2010 - Last month, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck a major victory for civil rights by interpreting a section of the voluminous California Education Code to be about what's best for schoolchildren.
In response to a lawsuit filed by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel, Judge William Highberger enjoined the Los Angeles Unified School District from laying off wildly disproportionate numbers of teachers at three middle schools. Because of state law generally requiring districts to lay off their least senior teachers first, these three schools, with mostly junior teachers, faced losses of as much as 60 percent of their faculty, compared to 15 percent or less at other district middle schools across town.
The judge cited a little-known subparagraph of the law that says districts may deviate from seniority in their layoff decisions in order to comply with "constitutional requirements related to equal protection of the laws."
It was a victory for the equal-opportunity principle upon which our system of public education is supposed to be built. But it was a victory on the head of a pin; for now, it applies only to the three schools named in the lawsuit. And given that the law had been on the books for more than a quarter century before anybody understood it well enough to invoke it, it would appear to need clarifying for districts statewide.
LAUSD is not alone in laying off disproportionate numbers of teachers by school. In the Sacramento City Unified School District, for example, 28 schools had no teachers laid off this spring. Nine schools, by contrast, have issued final layoff notices to more than 15 percent of the faculty. And three schools have issued such notices to more than 30 percent.
Against the backdrop of California's fiscal crisis, the principle of equal educational opportunity is under strain statewide. A refusal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and most legislative Republicans to consider new sources of revenue to ease an unprecedented budget shortfall has forced schools to release thousands of teachers and other employees. The loss of adults on campus has real consequences for children: larger class sizes, long-term substitutes while districts shuffle remaining staff, disruption of teaching teams, and less art, music, librarians and science instruction. And the consequences, as we have seen, are not distributed equally among schools.
The debate about the use of seniority in the layoff process is usually framed as a "management vs. union" issue. In truth, the failure to place and keep teachers where they are needed most is often the result of management pursuing the path of least resistance. The Education Code provides some tools to manage layoffs with an eye toward what's best for kids. Some school boards use these tools to protect certain classes of teachers, such as those with math or special education credentials. Others work directly off a seniority list and let the chips fall where they may.
To put school districts on a better path, I will introduce legislation to do the following:
• Clarify that the sleeper "equal protection" code section cited by Highberger does indeed apply to students, and that school districts statewide may use it to guard against disparate impacts.
• Require that rates of teacher layoffs in low-performing schools be no greater than the district average.
• Require that superintendents, when hiring new teachers, assign them in a way that achieves greater balance of experience across schools.
• Pursue tens of millions in federal dollars to provide support and training for teachers in struggling schools.
In the midst of a historic budget crisis, this proposal gives districts stronger tools to manage layoffs to protect the students who most need stable schools. That protection may make struggling schools more appealing assignments for teachers and encourage them to stay. And requiring teacher assignments that improve the balance of experience will bring a better mix of expertise to schools that have too often been revolving doors for novice teachers.
The governor, meanwhile, has urged the Legislature to substitute unspecified measures of teacher effectiveness for seniority in layoff decisions. This change, embodied in Senate Bill 955 by Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, should not be rushed without more careful consideration of appropriate measures by which to judge teacher performance. Should districts use test scores (what kind?), grades, principal observations, peer review? In what proportions? Would districts be able to accomplish this fairly and consistently? Could we ensure that senior teachers would not be dismissed based on salary? Such questions have not been addressed.
Others have admonished us to wait to tackle layoff matters until after the November election. But now is the time to act to protect the civil rights of schoolchildren, before the clarity brought by the lawsuit has blurred and while there is time to remind districts they have a responsibility to ensure that no child should be asked to bear an unfair burden in the budget crisis.
I do not suggest that my proposal will solve all the challenges faced by our public school system – chief among them a multi-year budget shortfall that is draining resources from schools that need more, not less. But it is a timely and necessary response to the inequities we must confront.
●● smf: 4LAKids is with Steinberg all the way – especially the sarcastic part about 'interpreting a section of the Ed Code to be about what's best for schoolchildren'. 'Imagine that' indeed!
However, the ball is in Sen. Steinberg's court – and that of his colleagues in Sacramento. Judge Highberger's preliminary injunction is not a decision/finding-of-fact – and is based on the precedent of the Rodriguez Consent Decree [http://bit.ly/9ZJhLF] – which LAUSD leadership is now lauding but refused to apply when they were laying off teachers at the three middle schools the Highberger injunction effects.
Rodriguez is a settlement binding only upon LAUSD.