John Rogers, New America Media and UCLA Staff
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Unified School District board reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California that protects new teachers in some low-income and poor-performing schools from mass layoffs.
This followed a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the state had been illegally designating interns as “highly qualified” teachers. Interns are teachers without full teaching credentials who still have full responsibility for students. The decision is a victory for low-income communities of color, since 62 percent of interns have taught in the poorest half of California schools.
Los Angeles has a troubled history with teacher assignments. In 1928 a district official reported that a new teacher should first be placed in the “foreign, semi-foreign, or less convenient schools. After a few more years of satisfactory service, she may be placed in the more popular districts.” While policies have changed over the last 80 years, we continue to see concentrations of new teachers in Los Angeles neighborhoods with the highest levels of immigration and poverty.
Teacher layoffs over the last two years have most affected schools serving Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods. The "last hired, first fired" rule of seniority leaves these schools and their young teaching staffs vulnerable to what has recently become an annual ritual of budget-induced layoffs. Students are forced to learn from a revolving door of substitute teachers, leaving many further behind in their education.
On their own, both the court ruling and the ACLU settlement appear to be civil rights victories. Both address school policies that exacerbate racial disparities.
Yet when compared, they seem contradictory. The court ruling tries to keep low-income schools from being overloaded with new and inexperienced teachers, while the settlement tries to retain the newer teachers to maintain greater stability among the faculty.
The reality is that the decisions are not contradictory. They are incomplete.
Correcting complex and deeply engrained school inequalities depends on much more than a couple of court cases. What’s missing is a coherent system of school policies that assigns an equitable mix of skilled, experienced teachers with younger, recently hired ones. Protecting newer teachers from mass layoffs allows young educators to stay at a school long enough to develop their professional craft and their knowledge of the local community.
Overly hyped news reports in the Los Angeles Times and Educated Guess have suggested that the Los Angeles settlement could be applied throughout the country. But this claim is premature— the actual terms of the proposed settlement are still unknown and, in any case, must be approved by all sides.
Another challenge is the district's’s teacher assignment rules, which make it difficult to transfer teachers to other campuses after they have earned tenure.
Fortunately, there are ways to make teacher assignments more fair without resorting to forced transfers. We know that teachers at all levels of experience are attracted to schools that provide certain key things: strong, inclusive leadership; opportunities for planning, collaboration and skills development; enough supplies and materials to do their job well, and a professional and competitive salary to support their families.
If districts could create these conditions on every campus, they would be able to right historic wrongs and provide all students access to high-quality learning—lawsuits or not.
John Rogers is the director of UCLA IDEA (The Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access).