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A Cure for Disruptive Teacher Layoffs in Los Angeles? Almost.

Some exciting education news out of Los Angeles: On Tuesday, the Board of Education approved a court settlement that would fundamentally alter (and improve) the city’s teacher layoff process.

The settlement was in response to a lawsuit that I wrote a piece about back in May. Here’s the quick back-story: Los Angeles, like most school districts, lays teachers off on a “last-hired, first-fired” basis—meaning, teachers with the fewest years of experience in the classroom are the first to go in a budget crisis. The problem is that inexperienced teachers are often clustered in poor, underperforming schools, so that the kids who need good teachers the most are often hit hardest. In Los Angeles, three middle schools with high-poverty, high-minority populations lost up to two-thirds of their teachers in recent layoffs, and the lawsuit, brought by the ACLU, alleged that this constituted a violation of the students’ right to equal access to public education. After all, with a dearth of permanent teachers and a constant rotation of substitutes, how are children supposed to learn?

The settlement would prevent this from happening again by limiting the number of teachers from a particular school that officials could lay off; it would distribute seniority-based layoffs more evenly throughout the district. The settlement would also exempt 45 underperforming schools from layoffs altogether.

It’s an innovative solution to a problem that plagues numerous school districts nationwide. (Just one day before the announcement in Los Angeles, a Chicago judge dealt a blow to layoff reform by ruling that the city’s teachers could not be let go without consideration of their seniority and tenure status.) If a judge approves the settlement, it could become a model for other cities seeking to protect their most vulnerable students during budget crises.

But it isn’t a perfect solution. The city still would not account for teachers’ classroom performance in the layoff process—and it should. Granted, factoring in performance would require actually knowing about performance, and, as recent events have shown, Los Angeles (like most school districts) does not evaluate its teachers sufficiently. The Los Angeles Times’ controversial decision in August to publish teacher ratings, based on student test scores, was followed up in early September with a proposal, released by the school district, to overhaul its teacher evaluation system; now, it must negotiate with the local teachers’ union—never an easy task.

But, then, who said change was easy? A more groundbreaking settlement would have dictated that performance, based on fair, comprehensive evaluations, should inform layoff decisions—protecting not only some of the most at-risk students in Los Angeles, but also the district’s best teachers, no matter their years of experience.