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Take teacher layoff battle to Sacramento

Anger over L.A. Unified cuts should be directed at legislators.

March 13, 2011|Steve Lopez

I bumped into my daughter's former teacher the other day, and she told me that after surviving several layoff threats, this time will probably be different.

She's relatively low in seniority and expects to lose her job.

I felt helpless, and angry, too, knowing how great a teacher she is.

How many others will we lose?

It is the season of horror stories in public education, as budget battles play out in Sacramento. How do you measure the losses for students when their teachers get dumped, class sizes grow and continuity is sacrificed on one campus after another?

In Hollywood, my friend Mika Mingasson and other parents plan to march Tuesday in support of four Melrose Elementary teachers who got pink slips.

Students at the Academy of Music at Hilton High on South Robertson are begging me to do something.

"Please help us," said one student.

"Today…my earth quit spinning," wrote another Hamilton student. "The best arts teachers at our school received pink slips."

Parents at magnet schools, in particular, are on the warpath, fearing that they'll take the brunt of the hit. And parents at Chandler Elementary in Van Nuys are furious.

"It is unnerving to think of our society in 10 years from now when the effects of these cuts start showing up," Sara Bouzaglo wrote in a letter blasting Los Angeles Unified School District officials.

To be fair, we're talking about notices of potential layoffs. Nobody knows how big the cuts might be when budget talks play out. And as for parents who are blasting school district officials, sure, byzantine bureaucracies can always operate more efficiently.

But if you're in a lather about teachers getting bounced, you might consider spending less time ripping beleaguered school districts and more time hounding state legislators. Gov. Jerry Brown wants to fill the state's budget hole with roughly $12 billion in cuts and $12 billion in revenue made possible by a five-year extension of several existing tax increases.

But Brown can't find the needed four Republican legislators willing to let Californians vote on his plan. Republicans would prefer $26 billion in cuts alone, and schools would get walloped.

So if you'd like to weigh in, go to http://www.legislature.ca.gov, get phone numbers and addresses, and let legislators know how you feel.

In L.A. Unified, 5,000 teachers could get whacked. And as for who stays and who goes, it will have nothing to do with quality. All that matters is seniority, except in the case of some low-performing schools that could be spared massive disruption following a lawsuit aimed at ending crippling turnover.

Is there a better way to make sure the district keeps its best teachers?

Of course, and last week, I spent two hours with United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy and four teachers on that very topic, among others.

Duffy said his blood pressure shot up when he read my recent column about NewTLA, a group of teachers who want UTLA to take the lead in designing better training programs. They also want the union to "stop throwing younger teachers under the bus," and create an evaluation system that looks at more than just tenure when layoffs roll around.

"I took umbrage," said Duffy. "UTLA is the face of reform."

He wasn't joking. And to back up his claim, he brought some ringers to our meeting. Kirti Baranwal of Gompers Middle School, Alex Caputo-Pearl of Crenshaw High, Colleen Schwab of Woodland Hills Academy and Queena Kim of UCLA Community School all spoke persuasively about how they're doing things differently, and getting results.

Their schools use innovative approaches that give teachers more authority and allow some freedom from district mandates. Baranwal described a collaborative effort at Gompers in which teachers meet weekly, discuss and critique one another's lesson plans, then videotape the results in the classroom and follow up with further analysis.

Wonderful, except that the vast majority of schools in L.A. Unified have no such innovations. If UTLA is the face of reform, why hasn't it come up with something that works for most students rather than for a few?

And speaking of Gompers, that was one of the schools the aforementioned lawsuit was based on. Tenure-based layoffs had a devastating impact on turnover there, and UTLA is appealing the lawsuit settlement.

Duffy's four all-stars argued that teacher-led innovations, along with more holistic evaluations, will help good teachers get better while identifying those who ought to pick another profession.

Again, that's nice. But district officials see it differently. They want students' progress to be one factor in teachers' evaluations, and Duffy and his reformers won't give an inch on that topic.

As for UTLA's own evaluation proposal, it's kind of vague, and it won't be done soon enough to save the job of a single good teacher when the ax next falls.

Mike Stryer, a Fairfax High teacher and founder of NewTLA, said UTLA has made "sporadic" efforts at "something resembling reform…but they play at the edges…. Real reform comes when UTLA can honestly say that it is doing everything possible to ensure that we have the strongest educators working in all of our schools."

It's a healthy little scrum, and I'll keep an eye on things. In the meantime, yell at Duffy if you please, or his critics, or L.A. Unified.

But if you want to save a teacher's job, you need to scream loud enough to be heard in Sacramento.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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