A court settlement in California this month represents a victory of sorts for 37 Los Angeles schools that have, for years, suffered from a revolving door of teachers and abysmal academic results. But it’s hardly the “historic agreement” that some have touted it to be.
Although the Reed v. California settlement sends much-needed resources to these schools, it should not be considered historic that labor and district partners agreed to fund three years of professional development, special education support services, mentor teachers, counselors, and assistant principals — all arguably basic services every school needs. Nor should we celebrate the fact that Reed fails to address California’s “last-in, first-out” (LIFO) layoff law, which started the whole fight back in 2009.
That year, the recession forced the Los Angeles Unified School District to slash its budget and lay off thousands of educators, starting with newer teachers. These teachers were, predictably, concentrated in some of the district’s neediest schools. The Reed lawsuit, brought against the state and district, argued that the layoffs denied students in these schools the right to equal educational opportunities. The case ping-ponged between various courts and weathered appeals in the years that followed, until this month’s final settlement.
The settlement manages to sidestep tough questions of how teacher seniority or effectiveness factor into employment decisions, instead focusing on new and much-needed investments in educator supports. The settlement rightly recognizes the need to invest in teachers and encourage principals to come to, and stay at, needy schools. It remains to be seen whether bonuses of $10,000 per year are sufficient to attract and keep talented leaders, rather than just warm bodies.
In an attempt to head off future layoffs, the district plans to offer teachers in the 37 schools specialized training in how to teach “the unique student population” served by these schools. The district’s hope is that it will be able to skip these specially trained teachers when assembling layoff lists, just as it may skip special education teachers and language specialists. This band-aid approach to protecting certain schools from layoffs has been used with mixed success, at best, in a small handful of other California districts. While this might help these schools in the short-term, it’s hardly a long-term solution. What’s needed is the more sweeping overhaul of LIFO called for by Vergara v. California, which will be decided in the coming months. When no longer forced to make layoff decisions based on seniority alone, California districts might finally be able to make employment decisions based on what’s best for kids.
Carrie Hahnel leads research and policy analysis for The Education Trust–West. She focuses primarily on issues of funding equity, accountability, teacher effectiveness, and public transparency in California.