When school districts and legislators have been unwilling to protect the most vulnerable students, school reform has sometimes been best accomplished by the courts. Consider the 2004 Williams settlement, which required California to provide long-underserved students with adequate textbooks and qualified teachers.
The most recent example: The Los Angeles Unified school board's adoption this week of a new policy on teacher layoffs in response to a lawsuit that contended that layoffs based solely on seniority harmed the most vulnerable students. If it is approved by the courts, the policy could set a national example that should have been a no-brainer from the start.
Last year, this page revealed what was going on at Markham Middle School and a handful of other L.A. Unified schools. One of the lowest-performing schools in the district, Markham had been placed under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which brought in a staff full of dedicated new teachers to try to turn things around. But when the district was forced to lay off hundreds of teachers, union seniority rules — in which the most recently hired are the first to forfeit their jobs — meant that Markham lost close to half its faculty. More experienced teachers didn't want to work at the school, and the long, slow progress of trying to rehire from successive groups of laid-off teachers meant that students were taught by underqualified, rotating substitutes for much of the 2009-10 school year.
In February, the American Civil Liberties Union and two other organizations filed suit on behalf of the students at Markham and two other severely affected schools.
The proposed settlement approved Tuesday would go beyond the demands of the lawsuit by protecting up to 45 schools — the ones that have the most trouble hiring and retaining teachers — from layoffs, and prohibiting disproportionate numbers of layoffs at any school in the district. In other words, if the district has to lay off 5% of its teachers, each school would lose about 5% of its teachers (aside from those protected schools). Within each school, though, layoffs would follow seniority rules.
United Teachers Los Angeles is understandably incensed and ready to sue, but the court should approve the settlement. It prevents disruption to schools and students by allowing each school to plan in advance for a limited number of layoffs, while honoring the seniority system at each school. More important, it embodies a concept that the Legislature — and up to now, the school board — have been too craven to put in place: The needs of students trump outdated union demands.