by David Safier
Stories about education rarely bring up as many interesting questions as this tale of teacher layoffs in Los Angeles.
The Tale, Part 1: Because of budget cuts, teachers were being laid off all over the L.A. school district. The district's seniority policy dictated that last hired teachers would be the first fired.
Question: Is it good policy for seniority to determine the order of teacher layoffs?
Question: In California where school budgets were already low, why should budget cutbacks be so severe that a significant number of teachers need to be laid off? Enough teachers leave the profession or retire every year that districts should be hiring more teachers to fill the vacant positions, not firing staff.
The Tale, Part 2: Schools in lower income areas had more teachers with less experience than schools in higher income areas, so they lost more teachers. In some schools, that meant losing close to half of their teachers, who had to be replaced by staff transferred from other schools.
Question: Why are children from low income families taught by the least experienced teachers?
Question: Since beginning teachers have lower salaries than experienced teachers, do districts compensate those schools by letting them hire more staff members? In other words, are schools staffed using a set teacher-student ratio, meaning more money is spent on students with more experienced teachers, or a constant amount of funding per student?
The Tale, Part 3: Unexpectedly, despite the disruption caused by the staff turnover in schools in lower income areas, the more experienced staff raised student test scores.
Question: Were the higher test scores simply a random variation, or were they the result of more experienced teachers doing a better job with the students?
Question: If more experienced teachers are more effective with the hardest-to-reach, hardest-to-teach students, wouldn't a district trying to do its best for all students make a concerted effort to staff schools in lower income areas with at least as many experienced teachers as schools in higher income areas, if not more?
Question: When a school district decides a school needs a turnaround plan, should a major part of the plan involve bringing in teachers who are both experienced and successful?
The Happy Ending Of The Tale: The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the L.A. school district over the firings. A settlement was reached that will mean tens of millions of dollars in added money for the schools which lost so many of their teachers, which will result in smaller class sizes in those schools. On top of that, California's Gov. Jerry Brown has increased school funding all over the state, with an extra boost to districts with lots of low income students.