An effort to lessen layoffs at three middle schools became a vehicle to propel fundamental changes such as requiring layoffs at the same rate campus by campus. It also sidestepped teachers' union resistance.
By Howard Blume and Jason Song, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/cbaWJB
October 14, 2010 - A lawsuit filed this year against the Los Angeles Unified School District began with a narrow demand: Stop layoffs from decimating the staff — and harming students — at three of the city's worst-performing middle schools.
But when the Board of Education announced a proposed settlement last week, what emerged was an ambitious assault on some of the district's longest-held practices.
In the week since the announcement, interviews with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, school board members, district officials, attorneys and civic leaders have provided a detailed look at how the lawsuit became a vehicle to propel fundamental changes in the nation's second-largest school district. The interviews show that parties on both sides of the case came to see it as a way to sidestep obstruction bythe teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which they viewed as resistant to change.
The tentative pact, which is scheduled to be discussed in court Thursday, would require layoffs to occur at about the same rate campus by campus across the school system. Less experienced teachers at some schools would thus be spared at the expense of more veteran colleagues elsewhere. And up to 45 schools could avoid layoffs completely if they demonstrate academic growth.
The settlement also opens the door for evaluating and paying more to teachers and administrators based on student test scores, moves that the teachers union staunchly opposes. Villaraigosa, who earlier worked for the teachers union, said he personally lobbied school board members to support proposals that made teacher effectiveness — rather than seniority — a factor in determining who would be laid off.
"It seems like they said: 'Let's try this thing and see what we could possibly pop in it,' and what actually happened was way more than anyone imagined," said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.
Union officials disliked the direction in which the talks were going and said they were unaware that a settlement was looming. Without the union's participation, advocates fashioned the proposed settlement that put UTLA, which favored different reform approaches, on the defensive.
A union attorney said UTLA was not kept informed about the progress of talks among the parties, a position the district's attorneys and others dispute.
The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Counsel and Morrison & Foerster, focused originally on preserving teacher jobs at Edwin Markham, Samuel Gompers and John H. Liechty middle schools. Up to two-thirds of teachers at those schools were laid off because of the "last hired, first fired" policy used by nearly all school systems.
Gompers and Markham are run by Villaraigosa's nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which recruited public-interest attorneys to pursue the litigation in the first place. Even so, the partnership and the union, which helped the ACLU gather information to file the suit, were later added by the court as defendants.
The union last attended a negotiation session on July 27, and last provided input in early August. UTLA's attorney, Jesus Quinonez, said the union did not receive notice of any meetings after Aug. 9.
Meanwhile, the other parties in the suit were coalescing around what became the proposed settlement.
One internal e-mail among attorneys for the district and the partnership talks of completing tentative settlement terms and then later presenting the results to UTLA for review.
The month of August marked an aggressive turn in the negotiations. In a September closed-session meeting, board member Yolie Flores urged her colleagues to reject any settlement that did not take on the wider issue of teacher evaluation. And her push was joined by the mayor's team as well as newly arriving Deputy Supt. John Deasy, one of the nation's foremost proponents of efforts to revamp traditional teacher evaluations in his prior job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"What good is it to have a stable school if the teachers aren't effective?" Flores said.
She and others were pressing for a value-added analysis, which uses student progress on standardized tests to estimate teacher and school effectiveness. The Times in August published a series of articles that analyzed teacher effectiveness using a value-added model. Critics say it is unreliable as a sole measure to evaluate teachers, but supporters say it brings objectivity to performance reviews. A few school districts throughout the nation use it as part of teacher evaluations, and the Obama administration has partially tied competitive federal grants to states' willingness to employ it.
But UTLA never saw the proposed settlement that the board approved Oct. 5, participants said.
The union had offered other approaches for dealing with schools hard-hit by layoffs or high teacher turnover. UTLA wanted the district to find successful principals for high-turnover schools and keep them in place longer, improve working conditions and develop recruitment incentives to attract veteran teachers.
Those provisions did not make the settlement.
It appeared as though Flores had the votes for a settlement that would provide bonus pay for low-performing schools that maintained a high value-added score.
But L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines disagreed with the value-added provision, saying that the budget-strapped district could ill afford bonus payments. In an interview this week, Cortines also stressed that he considers "combat pay" unproven by research. His comments weighed on a board majority, according to two board members.
Board member Steve Zimmer argued for removing bonus pay and deleting the mention of value-added measures. In a compromise that achieved a 7-0 vote, the settlement language now talks generally of potential incentives that could be added later and only states that campuses and teachers will be judged on "student growth over time."
Union officials were caught unaware when the district announced the vote — they had spent much of the day interviewing school board candidates and had not been tracking the meeting.
Villaraigosa insisted that all 15 partnership schools would incorporate value-added analysis at both the campus and teacher level.
"I would hope and expect the school district to do the same," Villaraigosa said in an interview.
His schools remain subject to the union contract, which does not, at this point, allow a value-added analysis in teacher evaluations.
And not all board members are satisfied with taking the proposed settlement further. Tamar Galatzan said she remained wary about any incentive program that could reward teachers at low-performing schools while overlooking teachers who are equally effective elsewhere.
"It's a question of equity," she said.
And union leaders are weighing a possible legal challenge.
Observers say there remain hurdles to clear before reaching a final settlement.
"If UTLA is a party in the case, the case is not done yet," said William Koski, an education professor at Stanford University.