Legislature should follow gutsy districts challenging seniority-based layoffs

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

When the Governor waved his May Revise wand, a lot people who were holding their breath expecting a “doomsday budget” exhaled in relief and breathed in the magic budget dust. With a sudden influx in revenue, Jerry Brown lopped $6.5 billion off the budget deficit and convinced Californians that education would be spared.

Of course, school districts and communities have been down this yellow brick road before, only to find that the great and powerful Oz doesn’t really have the power to fix the budget. In order to do anything, Brown has to steal a handful of Republicans from the clutches (or embraces, depending on one’s perspective) of the California Taxpayers Association. With a $9 billion hole left to fill and an unruly electorate tired of four years of crisis and possessing little faith in the rulers of the Emerald City, our school systems could still take a massive financial hit.

So, as school districts look to the end of June when their final budgets are due, they find themselves on the same precarious footing they’ve been on for years. Do they plan based on the best-case scenario of a final budget deal or a worst-case scenario of no budget deal? Do they keep some of the personnel cuts they’ve considered in their preliminary budgets or do they rescind those cuts and call back teachers based on the new numbers? No one really knows. What a world, indeed.

Trapped in the middle of this annual game of budget chicken are California’s students and school employees. This year, school districts sent out thousands of layoff notices to teachers and other school employees. As we at the Education Trust-West have repeatedly pointed out, these layoffs weren’t based on the effectiveness of school employees or the needs of school communities. The primary factor was seniority – with the impact of those layoffs disproportionally falling on our highest-need communities and the very students most in need of stability. With the budget still in the balance, these communities could be struck by more layoffs. Or they could experience another type of churn as employees whose positions are restored are “recalled” back to schools based solely on seniority.

If Sacramento acted on behalf of our students and communities, this law would be fixed already. But with the levers of power controlled by adult – not student – interests, Sacramento has failed to act.

Fortunately, we know that some districts have taken courageous steps to use existing authority in state law to mitigate some of the impact of seniority-based layoffs. We have posted a set of tools on our website, More Than Just Seniority: Fighting for the Rights of Students and Communities, that highlight the work of some of these districts. These tools are intended to inform education stakeholders about this existing authority, document its use in student-focused districts, highlight schools with the greatest likelihood of experiencing layoffs, and feature press coverage of the negative effects of quality-blind layoffs.

For example, in San Francisco Unified (SFUSD), district leadership used an exception in the layoff law allowing districts to “skip” teachers who have special training or experience and who are teaching specialized courses. SFUSD protected teachers with math, science, special education, and bilingual credentials, knowing that certain subject areas were critical to students gaining the credits necessary to graduate. Pasadena Unified took this authority one step further when it chose to protect teachers in its new Linked Learning pathways from layoffs, after those programs were destabilized by the previous year’s layoff process.

In another case, districts have used apparent discretion in the seniority-based layoff process to “skip” teachers in order to prevent a violation of “equal protection.” The Reed lawsuit in Los Angeles was based on this situation. The resulting legal settlement with Los Angeles Unified protected 45 high-need and new schools from the seniority-based layoff process (sadly, this ruling is being challenged by the teachers union and California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction). In a similar situation, Sacramento City Unified sought to protect six persistently low-performing schools from the destabilizing effects of teacher layoffs. An administrative law judge approved skipping teachers in the layoff process in five of the six schools for the 2011-2012 school year.

In these situations, district leaders have taken the law into their own hands to protect their students during the layoff process. But this shouldn’t have to be the case. What California needs are state leaders with the same willingness to prioritize the needs of students and school communities. This does not mean simply eliminating the law requiring seniority-based layoffs and leaving everything up to local bargaining. Instead, our leaders should stop deferring these types of decisions to enlightened local leaders willing to interpret the education code on behalf of their students. As the few examples noted above illustrate, these leaders are few and far between in a state with more than 1,000 school districts and 6 million students.

It is time for our state leaders to pass comprehensive reform that would empower our enlightened local leaders and require others to end the prioritization of seniority in layoffs and other employment decisions as a matter of state policy. Such a solution would replace existing state law on layoffs with language requiring school districts to make decisions based on teacher and staff effectiveness and subject matter needs. It would revise state law on evaluation to ensure that districts conduct multiple-measure annual evaluations (emphasizing hard data such as student performance results along with classrooms observations and other indicators) of their employees to determine their effectiveness, support their professional improvement. and quickly remove low performers. And it would give local leaders, including school principals, and communities far more flexibility to decide who teaches in their schools.

In states such as Illinois, Florida, and Colorado, legislatures have already passed such comprehensive solutions and are working on their implementation. In contrast, current efforts in California are limited and indeed may be counterproductive. For example, the Senate Education Committee quickly voted down a bill by Senator Bob Huff to allow districts to voluntarily develop new evaluation systems and use the results of these evaluations in employment decisions. Recently, the Assembly passed AB 5, a bill authored by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes that falls far short of the bipartisan legislation passed in Colorado and Illinois in reforming their teacher evaluation systems and tying employment decisions to those evaluations. Indeed the bill’s initial promise was cut short by a series of amendments pressed by those interested in maintaining the status quo, such as requiring all aspects of evaluations to be collectively bargained to language preventing the implementation of such systems until certain funding owed to districts is paid off.

As we enter the close of yet another difficult budget year, three facts are abundantly clear:

  • Our current education system in California is not achieving the college and career dreams of the vast majority of our students.
  • There is nothing more important than teachers and other school staff in making those dreams a reality.
  • Both the funding for and the rules that govern our education system, such as our dependence on seniority, exacerbate inequalities rather than diminishing them.

In certain school districts, enlightened leaders are willing to confront all three facts. In other districts, communities are challenging the status quo on behalf of their children. What they need are state leaders willing to transform our laws on their behalf.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

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4 Responses to “Legislature should follow gutsy districts challenging seniority-based layoffs”

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  1. Ken Poppers on Jun 30, 2011 at 11:18 am06/30/2011 11:18 am

    • 000

    Mr. Ramanathan needs to read Ed Trust’s own policy papers.
    In March 2010 The Education Trust published a report, “Close the Hidden Funding Gaps in Our Schools.”
    Here is a quote from the report: “High-poverty schools, on average, employ teachers with less experience and fewer advanced degrees than low- poverty schools.3 This means that with more experienced, more educated, more expensive teachers gravitating toward more affluent schools, the district ends up spending more on teacher salaries in affluent schools than in impoverished ones.
    The study also states that, “District salary schedules reward experience and advanced education, rather than effectiveness in raising achievement or willingness to accept challenging teaching assignments.”
    Unstated, but obvious, is that this funding gap does lead to unequal educational opportunities for students in high poverty schools simply because experience does matter, as in nearly all other occupations.
    In a similar study done by Mr. Ramanathan’s own organization, Education Trust—West, about the district I am employed by, Elk Grove, titled, Hidden Teacher-Spending Gaps in Elk Grove Unified School District: A Tale of Two Schools, goes on in the same vein, with even more language that disputes his current point of view.
    From page 2 of the document, “…there is a well-documented pattern in California and across the country: High-poverty and high-minority schools have the fewest experienced and qualified teachers. This pattern of inequity shortchanges low-income and minority students on the most important education resource— good teaching. It limits their chances for academic success and compounds the damage caused by poverty and racism.”
    Perhaps the studies and opinions of the Education Trust—West can be purchased by those who supply the funds.

  2. David B. Cohen on Jun 15, 2011 at 9:24 am06/15/2011 9:24 am

    • 000

    Not only is Caroline right that bullet point #2 is obviously misleading, but bullet point #3 offers a false sense of balance.  Perhaps “both” the funding and the rules play a role in exacerbating inequity (and there are many other factors, too) – but if you asked the administrators and boards in the most-underfunded districts, I’d expect them to say the lack of money is the far greater problem.

  3. David B. Cohen on Jun 15, 2011 at 9:16 am06/15/2011 9:16 am

    • 000

    With teacher attrition rates and a spate of retirements ahead, let’s not lose sight of the fact that any time we’re talking about layoffs, we’re almost certainly looking at severe cuts to education spending – regardless of need.  It’s hypocritical of the legislature to say that they want to protect quality by modifying LIFO when they’re unwilling to protect quality through a reasonable investment in the system overall.
    I would support LIFO modifications to keep cuts from gutting certain schools and leaving others untouched.  I would support modifications that keep qualified teachers in appropriate classrooms rather than create obvious mismatches.  Where you lose me, and many other teachers, is when you start talking about using “teacher-quality” as a basis for the decision – because the appropriate measures of teacher-quality must be established first, and you must further account for the fact that once those measures are determined, you will set off a variety of “CYA” behaviors among teachers to game that system.  It’s not pretty, but it’s self-preservation.  If my family relies on my job for health-care, and I’ve been in a school long enough to know the population and the classes and the administrators, why would I expose myself to unnecessary risk by taking on new or challenging teaching assignments?
    The pursuit of teacher-quality is worthwhile, but if it becomes a lever to push some teachers towards layoffs while saving others, it will corrupt its own usefulness as a measure of teacher-quality and instead become a measure of teacher resourcefulness and self-preservation.

  4. Caroline Grannan on Jun 13, 2011 at 7:06 am06/13/2011 7:06 am

    • 000

    Bullet point No. 2 is inaccurate and needs to be corrected. Socioeconomic status, parental education level and home language have far more impact on student achievement than teachers do.
    Teachers are universally agreed to be the most important IN-SCHOOL factor affecting student achievement. It’s inaccurate and misleading to omit “in-school.”

    Our current education system in California is not achieving the college and career dreams of the vast majority of our students.

    There is nothing more important than teachers and other school staff in making those dreams a reality.

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