San Francisco Unified blazes civil rights path for California districts to follow

(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.

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12 Responses to “San Francisco Unified blazes civil rights path for California districts to follow”

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  1. Felix Galaviz on Apr 5, 2012 at 2:47 pm04/5/2012 2:47 pm

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    I appreciate this article and the comments made in response to it. It is certainly a major leadership challenge for all districts facing these insurmountable financial walls; however the Superintendent is responsible to act on issues affecting the educational needs of all students. He has taken a bold step to deal with tough decisions in a manner of fairness to all students and communities. We may agree or disagree with his decisive direction, but he is aware of the challenges and is leading the SFUSD and not frozen from political fear or ineptitude.He has demonstrated the courage to ensure equity and access to the most vulnerable students in the SFUSD.

    Felix Galaviz

  2. EEEA on Mar 26, 2012 at 9:17 am03/26/2012 9:17 am

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    It seems to me this is a staffing issue, not a layoff issue. If these folks are so concerned about civil rights, maybe they should have been more proactive and insisted that their schools not be staffed with the highest numbers of the newest and least experienced teachers.
    It bothers me that this has not been looked at in this light. Districts need to look at their hiring and transfer practices to remedy this. Doing so would be much less disruptive and require much less rancor. But like so many other discussions regarding public education, there seems to be no desire to find solutions. Everyone is too busy proposing quick fixes that serve their personal biases. And too many who do so have zero experience educating students under increasingly challenging conditions.

  3. Paul Girard on Mar 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm03/16/2012 12:45 pm

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    I was replying to el, but apparently comments don’t get linked to the comment where “Reply” was selected.

  4. Paul Girard on Mar 16, 2012 at 12:43 pm03/16/2012 12:43 pm

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    That doesn’t solve the problem of highly talented, motivated and effective young teachers being laid off instead of less competent teachers with seniority.

  5. Navigio on Mar 12, 2012 at 7:51 am03/12/2012 7:51 am

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    Great points david. If nothing is done to stem the voluntary exodus of those teachers, saving them from layoffs is a no-op. I also question which part of this the author considers ‘civil rights’, the assault on seniority or doing something to protect the kids. Teacher experience matters for the very reasons  mentioned here. I guess seniority is in the name of civil rights as well?

  6. David on Mar 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm03/10/2012 8:28 pm

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    This is a complete farce. This protection means nothing. These “churning” is mostly caused by poorly run schools than by layoffs. The stats will show that most of these teachers do not return because they quit. The amount they are pushed by a non-understanding admin burns these teachers out so quickly. They are often expected to spend several hours outside of school every week on their own dime to attend meetings and recreate systems that would be in place if these schools could create an environment that actually made teachers want to stay there.
    When you take into account that many of these schools are not actually more poverty ridden than many other schools in the same district, it really just plays favorites for political gain and the whole time the only thing that seems to arise from this is to weaken the union. Many excellent teachers that worked really hard at other sites will now lose their jobs because the superintendent arbitrarily chose to protect these schools. I do not see any real data to back up any of Carlos Garcias’ arguments. Closer look at real data actually seems to make you question why some of the other schools in this district are not also protected since they also have the same qualities.
    If these schools were unique I would applaud it also. The comments above prove what a clever move it was by the superintendent. He can claim it as a civil right issue, weaken the union (allowing him to gain leverage in controlling the contract and teachers’ working conditions) and because it sounds like such a nice thing people do not question any of the data.

  7. Public Access on Mar 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm03/9/2012 5:21 pm

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    Why is this called a “civil rights” issue?  We are now cherry picking what is a civil right and what is not?  This is a common sense decision because of the money spent on training teachers in the mandated correctional process.  (Low performing turnaround schools identified in the sh*t list of the Feds)  Leave it at that.  The legitimate concern of the schools that become subject to layoffs without this protection, will be compelling.  Their only hope is to get on the sh*t list and they are protected.  Incentives are cloaked in mystery.  Stealth in academia.

  8. Crystal Brown on Mar 9, 2012 at 2:25 pm03/9/2012 2:25 pm

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    Thank you for pointing that out that there are no winners right now – even in San Francisco Unified. From a purely policy position, this is a move in the right direction but all kids are losing.  There are still many many schools in San Francisco that are making very difficult budgeting issues, including laying off staff, shortening the school year and cutting programs and these will impact ALL children.  My daughters attend a school with over half the children eligible for free and reduced lunch and 40% english language learners and  it is not a win to have any child at this school or any school lose the programs they desperately need and want to support an excellent learning environment.

  9. el on Mar 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm03/9/2012 2:16 pm

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    I should add, I’m sad that they had to lay off anyone at all. Really, fights about how we lay off teachers are missing the point, because in the grand scheme of things, it should be a really rare event. Teacher removal for performance issues is an entirely separate conversation.

  10. el on Mar 9, 2012 at 2:14 pm03/9/2012 2:14 pm

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    Good for them. A simple change that made layoff seniority by school instead of by district, and then apportioning layoffs by school might solve a lot of this. I’m glad they were able to do it.

  11. Gary Page on Mar 9, 2012 at 11:41 am03/9/2012 11:41 am

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    I believe a majority of teachers in California value justice for individuals and equal educational opportunity, but our local city councils and school boards often act in ways that favor the more privileged and resourced communities. Shame is the elephant in the room here – something so big and disturbing that we don’t see or acknowledge it, despite the fact that we keep bumping into it. “We” all should look in the mirror and be humiliated by the practices of institutional discrimination.
    Placing “affordable” housing in every neighborhood would help address this problem caused by “seniority.” But developers, and the politicians they support for election, use their power to maintain segregated communities.
    Too many of our communities have an over-concentration of poverty and tend to isolate new development into “gated” and “privileged” communities. Consequently, a child who happens to be born into a low-income family will likely attend a poor performing school because the family cannot afford to live in a nice neighborhood. This is not a problem that can be solved by school administrators or school boards.
    How can the rights of “seniority” be balanced by the need for schools “in need of improvement” to have experienced staff? Every school board should negotiate a labor agreement that provides a blend of experienced mentor teachers, developing teachers and beginning teachers in each school. Make that a statewide policy and the achievement gap will certainly diminish.

  12. Linda Peterson on Mar 9, 2012 at 10:09 am03/9/2012 10:09 am

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    A ray of light for all districts to follow in this very dark time. The San Francisco Unified School Board is to be highly commended.

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