(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
Kaitlin Donovan, Nicholas Melvoin, Emilie Smith, and Tyler Hester didn’t expect to get a layoff notice. They were the kind of teachers typically romanticized in Hollywood movies. Young, energetic, and idealistic, they sought out the challenge of teaching in high-poverty urban schools and set high expectations for their students. Yet, each of them went to their teacher mailbox and found a pink slip.
As a young teacher in San Francisco in the ’90s, I experienced a similar layoff. Reading the pink slip was a like a punch in the gut. It said to me, “Nothing you’ve done matters to us.” That feeling was echoed more than a decade later by Emilie, who said, “It was like getting an F on a paper you didn’t write. It sends the message that we don’t care about your performance in the classroom.”
Emilie is right. Because of California’s teacher layoff laws, performance in the classroom doesn’t matter. California has decreed that the most important aspect in layoff and other personnel decisions in school districts is seniority – the amount of time a person has been employed by a school district. In addition, California has mandated a layoff process for teachers and other staff that is both backwards and brutal.
As a district administrator in San Diego Unified, I watched this process unfold multiple times as we reacted to the education cuts in the governor’s January budget. In the 21/2 months before the March 15 layoff deadline, district leaders and school principals scrambled to make a series of high stakes budget and personnel cuts that were little more than stabs in the dark. Because this process was dependent on seniority, district personnel spent countless hours tracking down seniority dates and certifications in order to ensure that the least senior employees either lost or were bumped out of their jobs. And because high-poverty schools often had the least senior employees, they would often see their school staffs decimated.
I’ll always remember one particular school, Jackson Elementary. Long one of the district’s lowest performing schools, Jackson had experienced a dramatic turnaround under the leadership of its principal, Rupi Boyd, and a group of new teachers. Refusing to accept the belief that their children couldn’t learn because they were all poor and English learners, Rupi, now the chief academic officer for MLA Partner Schools in Los Angeles, and the teachers produced dramatic improvements in student learning, raising the school over 200 API points from the bottom to the middle of state school rankings. For their achievements, Jackson was recognized as one of the state’s distinguished schools. Yet, when the 2007 budget cuts came, nearly all of Jackson’s teachers received pink slips. They just didn’t have enough seniority.
For Jackson’s entire school community, this process was a disaster. Yet, with all the focus on just “preventing budget cuts,” the negative impacts of the mechanics of budget cutting and the layoff process typically attracted little attention. Now, three years of state budget cuts later, it is strikingly clear that both the education budget cuts and the state-mandated layoff processes based on seniority are disastrous for California’s future.
In “Victims of the Churn,” our most recent report, we are able to quantify these negative impacts with data from three large urban districts. The findings should be familiar to school communities across California. In all three districts, thousands of teachers get layoff notices unnecessarily because of unrealistic state-mandated deadlines and requirements to focus on seniority. When it comes to final layoffs, students in high-poverty schools are 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off. And in certain high-need schools more 15 percent of staff members lose their jobs.
In Nicholas Melvoin’s case, his high-poverty school in Los Angeles is now protected from this lunacy because this teacher went to the ACLU after he and nearly all of his colleagues received a pink slip. The settlement of the lawsuit against Los Angeles Unified now provides a strong measure of protection for students in some of LA’s highest-need schools.
What legislators must do
Unfortunately, one lawsuit won’t necessarily protect the students in the schools where Kaitlin, Emilie, and Tyler taught. Nor will it prevent other committed young teachers from leaving the classroom entirely. That will require courage on the part of our leadership in Sacramento to change longstanding policies.
Policymakers should start by changing the layoff notification date to prevent over-noticing; giving districts explicit flexibility to protect high-poverty schools from the disproportionate impact of layoffs; replacing California’s seniority-based layoff requirements with laws that emphasize job effectiveness and competence; and providing additional flexibility and authority to principals and school communities to maintain the stability of their school staffs in good and bad budget times.
None of these reforms are easy or politically expedient. All of them have been vigorously opposed in the past by the Sacramento special interests such as the statewide teachers unions focused on keeping things the same. But as Gov. Brown and legislative leaders approach California taxpayers with requests for vital funding, these are the reforms that Californians should expect in return for their hard-earned dollars.
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.