(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
As an education civil rights organization, we are far more accustomed to seeing school districts violate the rights of underserved students to a quality education than protect them from harm. But sometimes a school district’s leadership takes such a strong and courageous stance on behalf of their most vulnerable students that it takes your breath away. This was the type of courage shown by Superintendent Carlos Garcia and five members of the San Francisco Unified School Board when they voted to protect 14 of their highest-poverty schools from teacher layoffs in the coming year.
Last year The Education Trust-West published a report, Victims of the Churn, that revealed that high-poverty schools in California were far more likely to experience teacher layoffs. Because layoffs are typically based on seniority, the least senior teachers are “bumped” out of their positions by teachers with more experience. And because high-poverty schools tend to be staffed with younger teachers, they turn out to be the biggest losers in this process. The victims of this arbitrary and bureaucratic system are teachers and the vulnerable students and communities they serve.
For years it has been clear that this “churn” was disproportionally damaging high-poverty schools that were trying to improve, but few leaders were willing to risk the political damage of taking an alternative approach. Fortunately, advocates for low-income students began to see that this system was inequitable and had to change.
In Los Angeles Unified, an outcry from teachers and students in the district’s highest-poverty schools prompted the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel to file a groundbreaking lawsuit to protect students from the disproportionate impact of layoffs. In these schools, students faced a constant revolving door of instructors. Teachers who designed plans for school improvement were laid off before their plans could be implemented. Students saw their dreams of college shattered as critical courses disappeared. The resulting settlement (known as “Reed”) protected dozens of schools from the impact of layoffs and has been supported by a broad range of civil rights groups.
Similarly, last year in Sacramento Unified, the superintendent and board protected five of their highest-poverty schools from the impact of layoffs. Each of these schools had a history of low performance and made extensive plans for school improvement. All of them would have been devastated by the normal layoff process with significant collateral damage to their students and communities.
These examples cracked open the door for districts around the state to take an alternative approach. With its move, San Francisco has pushed the door open. To Superintendent Garcia and the board’s credit, they did not make this decision arbitrarily. They looked at schools with a history of low performance and high turnover. They focused on schools where they had invested significant school improvement efforts, teacher training, and funding to increase student performance and close achievement gaps. These are schools that have shown improvement over the course of the past several years, where teachers and communities deserve the chance to build on their good work.
The critics of this approach argue that it will force layoffs onto other schools. These same critics often like to point out that the real problem with student and school performance is poverty. Well, if poverty is the problem, then what could be more important than creating stable learning environments for our highest-poverty students? And wouldn’t we want to make sure, in the name of equity, that we gave our low-income students every advantage they needed to beat the odds, close achievement gaps, and succeed?
For me, this is not an academic exercise disconnected from the day-to-day reality of schools. I taught in one of these protected schools. I know what it means to the students and community to shield them from further harm. As an administrator in San Diego Unified School District, I participated in the implementation of multiple layoff processes that devastated our district’s poorest schools. The process made me sick and I wished at that time that we could have done something different. Over the last several years, I have watched states such as Colorado pass laws to change their layoff processes to require districts to consider the “best interests” of students. Sadly, I know that there’s little hope of our leaders in Sacramento having the courage to make similar changes.
By taking this bold step to shield their highest-need schools from layoffs, San Francisco’s leadership prioritized the interests of their most vulnerable students. They have shown the leaders of every school district in California from Oakland to San Diego that there is another way. Let’s hope their courage is infectious.
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 two children in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.