The Los Angeles Unified school district cannot for budgetary reasons lay off teachers at three of the city's worst-performing middle schools, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.
Several civil rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit in February against L.A. Unified and the state on behalf of students at Samuel Gompers, Edwin Markham and John H. Liechty. The complaint alleged that students were denied their legal right to an education because of the high number of budget-related layoffs at the schools.
Between half and three-quarters of the teachers on those campuses were laid off last year, leading to a shortage of permanent and qualified instructors, while schools in more affluent areas had far fewer dismissals, the suit alleged.
Citing state law, school districts dismiss teachers on the basis of seniority during budgetary shortfalls, but the suit alleged that the district can legally "skip" instructors' years of experience to ensure equal student access to education.
Judge William F. Highberger agreed and ordered that the district retain teachers at those schools, although instructors could be fired for other reasons.
Plaintiffs' lawyers hailed the decision as historic.
"This sets a precedent to the state and school districts that they can't balance their budgets on the back of low-income children of color," said Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation at Public Counsel.
Teachers and students at Markham have said there were rotating substitutes in many classes and that students lost momentum. The laid-off teachers were the least experienced, but they were also among the most engaged in efforts to reform the schools, they said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke at Markham earlier this year in favor of the lawsuit. Several state lawmakers who are supporting a bill that would make it easier to dismiss underperforming teachers cited the complaint as an impetus for changing California's education code.
In a written statement, L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he was "very pleased" with the decision.
"It protects the students at these three schools by providing stability in the teacher workforce," he said.
The district dealt with a nearly $640-million budget shortfall by issuing thousands of preliminary layoff notices to teachers and other employees. Some of these were later rescinded when employees agreed to pay cuts.
Cortines has said he is opposed to dismissing teachers solely based on years of service.
Officials with United Teachers Los Angeles said they could not comment because they had not seen the decision.
Two of the three schools are operated by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.
"This is a major first step in the fight to protect all students from unfair practices that undermine their right to a quality education," Villaraigosa said in a statement.