Thursday, May 17, 2012

California Judge Rules in Favor of Seniority

The current wave of Ed Deform is breathtaking for the diversity and quantity of ill-conceived and destructive demands being made by its proponents. Despite the fact that these reforms contribute to the demoralization of teachers and potential flight from the profession at a time of teacher shortages, while also deteriorating safety and learning conditions for students, it seems like legislators and the courts are perfectly content to support and promote the madness.

However, in a breath of fresh air, administrative law judges recently ruled that San Francisco Unified and Sacramento City Unified did not have the authority to ignore state seniority laws in their attempts to keep veteran teachers at low-performing schools. While state law allows for few exceptions to seniority-based layoffs, administrative law judges recently ruled that San Francisco Unified had not made a compelling case for ignoring seniority, while Sacramento City had done so only partially, according to Thoughts on Public Education, (TOPED).

Unfortunately for veteran Sacramento teachers, the rulings of administrative law judges are not binding and the Sac City school board voted unanimously to ignore the judge and exempt all teachers at all seven of the district’s “Priority Schools.” The consequence will be that many inexperienced teachers will have jobs next year, while many experienced veterans will not. The SFUSD board decided not to contest Administrative Law Judge Melissa Crowell’s decision,   according to TOPED.

Fensterwald wrote that state law emphatically requires teacher layoffs to be based on seniority, but allows for two exceptions. The first is pretty obvious: a newer teacher with specific expertise cannot be bumped by a more senior colleague who lacks that expertise. For example, a 5-year veteran English teacher cannot replace a physics teacher with only 2 years of experience (unless that English teacher also has a physic credential).

The other exception, which allows districts to ignore seniority in order to protect students’ right to equal educational opportunity, is more open to interpretation and abuse. Districts like LAUSD have successfully argued (with the aid of the ACLU) that seniority causes low performing, low income schools to lose a disproportionate percentage of their teachers during layoffs.

There are numerous problems with this argument that have unfortunately been ignored or discounted by judges. First, layoffs hurt students at all schools, regardless of students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and their schools’ test scores. This is because layoffs lead to increases in class sizes and teacher workloads district-wide. This in turn decreases their ability to assign and grade meaningful assignments, monitor student safety, facilitate extracurricular activities and provide one-on-one attention. It also leads to declining course offerings.

It is also important to understand why low performing schools tend to have higher percentages of novice teachers in the first place and to critique the fairness of this for lower income students. The fact is that lower performing schools typically have a disproportionate percentage of lower income students. They also are among the most difficult schools to work in because of higher rates of absences and discipline problems and, more significantly, the burdensome punishments imposed by NCLB as a result of their lower test scores. In short, teachers at lower income schools are expected to work a lot harder and longer for the same pay as their colleagues at more affluent schools.

If we want to talk about equal educational opportunity and bias within the educational system, we need to end the Apartheid-like system that allows some schools to have as many as 80-90% of their students on free or reduced-cost lunch, while others in the same city or district may have fewer than 5%. Likewise, as long as we continue to allow a significantly more challenging workload for teachers at certain schools, those schools will continue to see an exodus of their more experienced teachers and a higher percentage of novice teachers.

Layoffs should also be recognized as an artifact of the class war being waged by the rich against the rest of us, in which the wealthy contribute less and less in taxes and rob the state of revenue for education. In other words, if the rich were paying more in taxes—possibly only what they were paying prior to the Reagan era—there would be no need for layoffs.

However, this dynamic hurts students’ educational opportunities in far deeper ways than increased class sizes and losses of popular teachers. The declining tax base also results in shrinking public health, nutritional and other services that benefit low income families, thus exacerbating many of the effects of poverty like higher rates of learning disabilities, cognitive impairment and absenteeism.

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