Friday, August 24, 2012

Court Overturn’s LAUSD’s Seniority Exemption

United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) has won a small victory in its fight to preserve seniority rights at Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD), according to the 4LAKids Blog.

In February, 2010, in Reed vs. California, lawyers argued that low performing, low income schools were unfairly impacted by layoffs since they tend to have higher percentages of younger teachers who lack seniority and that this violated students’ constitutional right to educational equity. Judges ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, paving the way for LAUSD to exempt 45 schools from seniority rules, even though this violated state law and teachers’ contracts.

UTLA sued to overturn the ruling and the California 2nd District Court of Appeal has now invalidated LAUSD's exemption. In the 2 to 1 decision, the justices said that UTLA has the right to a trial where they can argue the merits of their case. The ACLU, which supported the Reed lawsuit, is planning on appealing the case to the state supreme court. Until the Supreme Court takes action on the case, the 2nd District Court’s ruling will stand.  

The recent ruling did not address the ACLU’s or Reed’s argument that seniority violated students’ constitutional rights, focusing instead on the fact that the Reed ruling violated existing state law on seniority rights during layoffs.

The argument that students’ constitutional rights are violated by seniority is absurd on several levels. First, the reason those schools are low performing is because they have high percentages of lower income students. Their teachers are not the cause of their poverty or their low test scores and even the best teachers cannot make every poor student successful in school. Educational equity is impossible without economic equity and if the ACLU and parent backers of the Reed lawsuit really care about educational equity for poor children, they should be looking for strategies that reduce economic inequity, not attacking teachers’ unions and labor protections for working people.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that the best teachers should be able to help some lower income students succeed academically and that they would be more effective than the worst teachers. However, there is no reason to assume that younger, less experienced teachers are necessarily more effective than their more senior colleagues. On the contrary, experienced teachers ought to be more effective, on average. Thus, protecting their jobs during layoffs is in children’s interests.

While it is true that lower income schools have larger numbers of inexperienced teachers, it is not necessarily true that protecting their jobs is the best way to maintain continuity for their students. Obviously, high teacher turnover is disruptive to academic programs and can be stressful for children. However, younger teachers have a much higher attrition rate than experienced teachers, even when layoffs aren’t occurring. Thus, lower income schools suffer higher turnover rates and personnel disruptions than affluent schools, regardless of seniority rules. The solution to this problem is not to undermine teachers’ binding contracts or to do away with seniority protections, but to provide more support for beginning teachers, so they are better able to cope with the challenges and frustrations of the teaching profession.

Abolishing or curtailing seniority does nothing to change the teacher demographics at low performing schools, especially if the protected novice teachers still leave the profession within 3-5 years. Rather, reformers ought to look at why these schools tend to have such high levels of novice teachers and seek remedies to these problems. Many experienced teachers, for example, have worked in such schools, but got burned out from all the extra demands placed on them by administrators and politicians to fix problems that were out of their control. Others saw the writing on the wall and decided to transfer to more affluent schools before their evaluations, tenure or pay started to be negatively affected by low student test scores. Some simply got emotionally drained from years of working with so many students who were hungry, sick, depressed or lacking in the prerequisite skills necessary for the classes they were in.

The Apartheid-like nature of most urban school districts ensures that there will be affluent schools with a majority of students who do well on standardized exams and who are socially and academically ready for the classes in which they are placed and others within the same district with a majority of lower income students, with lower graduation rates and test scores. This, along with inadequate funding and the persistence of the wealth gap are the real educational equity issues.

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