Thursday, May 13, 2010

COURTS DOING SCHOOL’S JOB: L.A. Unified must change teacher contracts to include saner rules that benefit disadvantaged kids.

L.A. Times Editorial

May 13, 2010 | 4:29 p.m. – A judicial injunction against laying off more teachers at three schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District serves as a sad reminder that the California courts have been far more willing to stand up for disadvantaged students than either district leaders or the Legislature. There's a chance to change that with a bill that would, among other overdue reforms, allow school districts to take into account factors other than seniority when laying off teachers.

The court case stems from a situation at Markham Middle School that was reported on this page in November. Operated by the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, Markham had hired a brand-new batch of teachers to turn around a school beset by abysmal test scores and on-campus violence.

But at the end of their first year, L.A. Unified was forced to lay off hundreds of teachers, which hit Markham particularly hard because of the last-in, first-out rules of both state law and the district's union contracts. The slow, arcane rules of rehiring for open spots meant that several classes at Markham were taught by substitutes who rotated every month for much of the school year.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups sued in February, saying that at Markham and similarly affected Samuel Gompers and John H. Liechty middle schools, these layoff and rehiring rules were denying students equal access to education. On Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger agreed, and ordered the district not to lay off any more teachers at the three schools for budgetary reasons.

It's not the first time that disadvantaged students have needed the courts to prod politicians and bureaucrats into action. In 2000, close to 100 San Francisco students were the plaintiffs in a suit challenging the state's failure to provide them with equal access to textbooks, clean and well-maintained campuses and qualified teachers. The resulting settlement in what's known as the Williams case has provided millions of dollars each year for low-performing schools.

But Wednesday's ruling, while welcome, affects only three local schools and doesn't do nearly enough to protect low-income students, who are perennially the most likely to be taught by the least qualified teachers.

There has been a predictable union fight against SB 955, by state Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), which would allow districts to consider other criteria than seniority in determining layoffs. It also would let districts assign teachers based on school needs rather than seniority, and modify the rules to help streamline the firing of the worst teachers.

But even if the bill passes, and we hope it does, districts would have to muster the gumption to change their teacher contracts to include saner rules that benefit students. That's something L.A. Unified hasn't managed to do even when it had the authority to do so.

These days, it too often takes the courts to do the schools' job.

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