Social justice or an attack on LA teachers?

October 28, 2010

Randy Childs, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles, looks at how an effort to protect the civil rights of minority students is being used to attack the teachers' union.

IN THE last two years, tens of thousands of teachers in U.S. public schools have been laid off by school districts dealing with budget deficits caused by the current economic crisis. In an education system that has been woefully underfunded in times of boom and bust alike, every one of these layoffs is an outrage--most of all for the children whose futures are disrupted by the overcrowding and upheaval these layoffs cause in their schools.

It's even worse for schools in the poorest neighborhoods in America's deeply segregated cities. Schools that serve low-income children of color entered the economic crisis already bearing a disproportionate burden of overcrowding, underfunding and lack of institutional support. When the crisis hit, these same schools experienced the brunt of the teacher layoffs.

This disparity was the impetus for a lawsuit filed last year against the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) by public interest legal groups, including the ACLU and Public Counsel, on behalf of the students of Liechty Middle School near downtown LA and Gompers and Markham Middle Schools in Watts.

LA teachers marching against layoffs and education cuts in April
LA teachers marching against layoffs and education cuts in April (Paul Bailey)

Due to their high numbers of newer teachers, in the spring of 2009, these schools saw somewhere between 45 percent and 60 percent of teachers receive Reduction In Force (RIF) notices--layoff notices that went out to more than 2,000 teachers citywide as the LAUSD attempted to deal with reductions in funding from the state by cutting jobs.

Added to the tremendously high teacher turnover these schools already experience every year, the RIFs forced Gompers, Liechty and Markham to open in the fall with new faces in dozens of classrooms. Many classes were supervised by a rotation of up to 10 different substitute teachers in the course of a semester.

"It really made people who wanted to stay at our school feel de-valued," explained Kirti Baranwal, who is in her eighth year as a teacher at Gompers and is the school's chapter chair (union representative) with United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). "We lost teachers who were in academic leadership positions, on policy-making councils, and who really cared about our students."

RIFs in education are distributed primarily on a basis of seniority--meaning newer teachers are usually the ones to be laid off, while more experienced teachers are likely to keep their jobs. Thus, the disparities in RIF notices between schools is a direct reflection of the fact that the poorest schools have far fewer highly experienced teachers than schools that serve middle-class children.

When a new round of budget cuts became imminent in 2010, another 33 percent of Markham teachers and 18 percent of Gompers teachers received RIFs. In this context of compounding layoffs, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, known as Reed v. LAUSD, were successful in obtaining a temporary restraining order prohibiting the district from laying off any more teachers at the three schools in 2010.

This court order induced the parties to the lawsuit to enter negotiations that led to a tentative settlement, approved and announced by the LAUSD school board on October 5. The Reed settlement, though not yet approved by the judge, has been greeted by positive media attention, characterizing it as a landmark civil rights victory for impoverished schoolchildren.

Representative of this reaction is a Los Angeles Times article that reports, "In essence, the case establishes that having quality teachers in high poverty schools could be considered a constitutional right in California." Quoted in the same Times article, Stanford University education law professor William Koski raves, "We've established the fact that you can't do harm to poor kids."

Some of the provisions of the settlement do seem at first glance to provide welcome relief to schools like Gompers, Liechty and Markham. The deal proposes to form a list of 45 high-turnover schools (including the three plaintiff schools) that each year would be protected from any teacher RIFs. Supposedly to prevent this policy from merely pushing the lion's share of layoffs from these schools to another group of high-poverty, high-turnover schools, all other schools would have their RIF numbers capped at the district average.

UNFORTUNATELY, IF you take a closer look, you'll find the fingerprints of the corporate "school reform" movement all over the Reed settlement.

The deal includes measures that would force impacted schools to compete with each other for inclusion on the protected list of 45. This competition would be based upon "multiple measures of school-wide teacher performance" and "overall academic growth over time." Behind the rhetoric of "multiple measures," the real push going on in public education--from LAUSD to the Obama administration--is to base a wide range of school-site decisions on students' scores on standardized tests.

School Board member Yolie Flores was the driving force behind the "teacher performance" and "academic growth" provisions of the deal, and also gave a perfect example of their tortured logic, asking at a September board meeting, "What good is it to have a stable school if the teachers aren't effective?"

This begs three questions. One, doesn't working at an unstable and underfunded school make teachers less effective than they would otherwise be? Indeed, documents filed by the Reed plaintiffs prove this to be true, which is why the injunction happened in the first place.

Two, if this is a civil rights issue, then why should measures of "academic growth" be a factor in which schools get protected? Do children who show gains on standardized test scores have more constitutional rights than children who don't?

And three, just what evidence is there to suggest that self-styled "reformers" like Flores know the difference between effective teaching and a hole in the ground? As education historian Diane Ravitch notes, today's education reformers rarely if ever have anything substantive to say about the actual content of what children should be taught or how.

Flores attempted to get explicit language in the Reed settlement to use "value-added measures" to determine which high turnover schools would be protected from layoffs.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a key supporter of Flores and the "reform" majority on the LA school board, took the opportunity to demand that LAUSD use value-added measures to evaluate all of its schools and teachers. Villaraigosa's administration also has a hand in running several LAUSD schools, including Gompers and Markham, through its non-profit Partnership for LA Schools (PLAS). PLAS actively encouraged the Reed lawsuit and has had an ongoing role in the negotiations.

These politicians' heavy-handed advocacy for using value-added measures to drive the evaluation and even termination of teachers is strong evidence that they know little to nothing about what makes a good teacher. A great deal of educational research has shown that data from such measures is unstable, unreliable and unsupported by scientific methodology.

Studies have shown that if value-added measures declare me to be a great teacher this year, there's a 30 percent to 50 percent chance I will suddenly and inexplicably become "ineffective" next year or vice versa. Value-added measures are an attempt to graft an economic concept--the "value added" to a commodity by a direct producer--to the very different world of education. Under such a set-up, children are the commodity, and standardized test scores are their exchange values.

The rhetoric about teacher effectiveness is an attempt on the part of the capitalist class to divert attention away from their own systematic neglect of inner-city schools and onto their favorite scapegoats--teachers and our unions.

"It's not the perfect settlement," Flores told the Times after having to accept a compromise that avoids any direct references to value-added measures in the deal. "But for me, it begins to address one of the biggest structural problems we have in public education--this issue about seniority."

Union seniority rules, according to this logic, are the primary injustice hurting low-income children of color by forcing the system to lay off their disproportionately less experienced teachers in higher numbers.

However, blaming seniority ignores the question of how and why inner-city schools got such a disproportionate number of new teachers in the first place. It also ignores the even larger question of how a society that can afford to spend trillions of dollars on war, trillions more on corporate tax breaks, and even more trillions on bailouts for the bankers who wrecked the economy can turn around and lay off teachers because there supposedly isn't any money for our schools.

THE REED case is not the first lawsuit to "establish the fact that you can't do harm to poor kids." A 1986 lawsuit, Rodriguez v. LAUSD, specifically challenged the fact that inner-city schools tend to have far fewer veteran teachers than more affluent suburban schools.

This eventually led to the Rodriguez consent decree that required LAUSD to set aside funding for teacher training and mentoring at schools with higher numbers of new teachers, and to take affirmative measures toward an equalization of the ratios of new teachers and veteran teachers at all schools.

The disparities attacked by the Rodriguez settlement weren't only the result of blind neglect on the district's part--although the district's systematic neglect of inner-city schools is a well-established fact.

Sending new teachers to schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods had been a conscious LA school policy decades before UTLA and seniority protections came on the scene. In 1928, a district official argued for inexperienced teachers to be assigned to "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."

The Rodriguez settlement pushed back against this ugly history by requiring veteran-heavy schools to fill vacancies with new teachers, who would then benefit from mentoring from their more experienced colleagues. It also required the district to go out of its way to find experienced teachers to fill vacancies at schools with a higher proportion of new teachers--as well as spending extra money at these schools to help new teachers improve their craft.

After about a decade of implementation, the Rodriguez consent decree was working, and the staffing disparities among LAUSD schools were decreasing gradually but significantly. So, of course, Rodriguez was ended in 2006! The plaintiffs (including the ACLU) asked for a five-year extension of the consent decree, but the judge accepted LAUSD's promises to continue the progress made by voluntarily implementing the same policies. "We have outlived it," claimed district lawyer John Walsh.

However, once the consent decree was lifted, the district immediately stopped enforcing any Rodriguez-initiated policies, and the staffing disparities began to grow again.

Unfortunately, when Rodriguez expired, UTLA did not wage a serious fight for its continuation. Nonetheless, if the district were serious about addressing the needs of high turnover and hard-to-staff schools, it never would have sought the end of Rodriguez in the first place.

Because of the influence of LA Mayor Villaraigosa and school board member Flores, the Reed settlement proposes several "solutions" to the problem of hard-to-staff schools that are nothing more than union-busting in disguise. Hopefully, the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case will come to their senses and move away from the worst aspects of the deal.

The problem is that district leaders and the mayor are only too happy to insert themselves into the discussion, wrap themselves hypocritically in the banner of children's rights, and point a long, accusing finger at the same union they've been attacking for years.

The weakness of the civil rights lawyers' position is in the narrow framework of trying to remedy the state's and the district's violations of student civil rights through changes in seniority rules and the RIF process alone--and their willingness to go along with Villaraigosa, Flores and others who want to use this as an opportunity to attack UTLA. Changing the criteria for how RIFs are handed out won't address the long-term disparities that made Gompers, Liechty and Markham so vulnerable to begin with.

Then, there's the question of why LAUSD is so determined to eliminate teachers' jobs. It has become increasingly clear that the district will have the necessary funds to prevent any teacher RIFs this year, if officials were to step up and act in the interests of students. More school site jobs could be saved by redirecting the millions of dollars that LAUSD currently spends on its bureaucratic local district offices and wasteful periodic assessments.

A just settlement to the Reed lawsuit would require LAUSD to redirect this money to the classroom and to spend money from the recently passed federal education jobs bill immediately. A just settlement would also require LAUSD to take affirmative, Rodriguez-style measures to reduce the imbalance of teacher experience levels at different schools, and to improve the educational conditions at impoverished schools that suffer from high turnover rates.

Undoubtedly, a just settlement would have none of this garbage about putting schools in competition with each other or unreliable measures of "student growth" or "teacher effectiveness."

THE PROBLEM is that the actual proposed settlement of the Reed case allows union-bashers to use the issue of social justice to attack UTLA--namely, our seniority rights.

In fact, union seniority is an important measure of social justice in and of itself. It gives working people a measure of job security in a capitalist system that is constantly undermining the stability of workers' lives. It protects employees who speak truth to power from retaliation by their employers. It can create the basis by which hiring, layoffs, job assignments and other key aspects of the workplace are handled through an objective and predictable process, rather than the whims and favoritism of management.

In education, seniority for teachers means all of the above--and it also directly benefits students. Education studies consistently show that the average teacher is significantly less effective in their first couple of years teaching than they will become after several years of experience in the classroom. That's why its so important that teachers who make a long-term commitment to the classroom are protected by seniority--both teachers and students benefit.

Now, however, the union is faced with a dilemma. UTLA must continue to defend seniority as a foundation of union organization against Villaraigosa, Flores and others who want to use the settlement of the lawsuit to weaken us. Certainly, we don't want to see highly experienced colleagues laid off when the jobs of the newest teachers are saved because they happen to work at a high-turnover school.

But by the same token, no teacher with a conscience and a commitment to social justice wants to see some schools and communities devastated by layoffs year after year. UTLA has to balance the issue of our seniority rights with meeting the needs of some of our most at-risk students.

While we reject the cynical attempts of Flores and Villaraigosa to hide behind those kids while attacking us, we also have to squarely face the issues and take a stand for social justice. Teachers can and should take the lead in defending our kids from the impact of layoffs even as we stand up for our own rights.

However, the civil rights lawyers' solutions fail on both these counts. They seek to prevent RIFs at 45 schools only to push the pain of layoffs onto other beleaguered sites. This not only doesn't address the real problem, it will likely make the situation worse.

Couple the inadequacy of the major "remedy with the fact that the mayor and the school board are using this opportunity to marginalize the union and put forward a solution that benefits neither students nor their teachers, and it becomes clear that the settlement would be a disaster. We face an agreement that sanctions an attack on UTLA and seniority, and lets LAUSD and the state off the hook for policies that have done enormous harm to Black, Latino and poor students.

It's urgent that UTLA members debate these issues--and develop their own proposals that both defend our union and genuinely meet the needs of our students.

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