Legislature should follow gutsy districts challenging seniority-based layoffs

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.

Author: Arun Ramanathan

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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