In a landmark decision that could lead to scrapping seniority-based layoff policies at schools statewide, a judge ruled Friday that L.A. Unified could not fire new teachers at 45 campuses because the high turnover unfairly disadvantages students.
Applauded by education reformers but blasted by teachers union leaders who plan to appeal it, the ruling is aimed at protecting students at hard-to-staff schools in the current climate of mass layoffs.
In recent years, some troubled schools at LAUSD have lost more than half their teachers because only recent graduates new to teaching are willing to work there.
"This is a historic decision for the state of California," said John Deasy, deputy superintendent of LAUSD. "The court stood and lifted up the voice of youth. That voice was loud and clear."
Under Superior Court Judge William Highberger's ruling, the 45 campuses will be chosen annually and include the district's 25 lowest-performing schools and others that show signs of positive improvement.
Highberger's ruling upholds a settlement between LAUSD and the American Civil Liberties Union, which had sued the district last February. The ACLU argued the district's "last-hired, first-fired" policy unfairly disadvantaged students at under-performing schools, where traditionally heavy turnover has been exacerbated by layoffs.
Ironically, the district welcomed the lawsuit because it too wanted more flexibility in laying off teachers. But strictly enforced union contracts forced LAUSD officials to send layoff notices to up to 72 percent of teachers at some of the campuses.
But the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, said in a statement that the ruling would perpetuate a status quo in which the neediest schools will continue to have a majority of less experienced teachers with few experienced mentors.
"This settlement will do nothing to address the inequities suffered by our most at-risk students," said UTLA Elementary Vice President Julie Washington. "It is a travesty that this settlement, by avoiding real solutions and exacerbating the problem, actually undermines the civil and constitutional rights of our students."
Even though the ruling affects only 45 of LAUSD's 1,065 schools, education officials said the ruling's effect would stretch far beyond Los Angeles.
Newly elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who filed a brief opposing the settlement on Friday, noted it "could have far reaching, unintended consequences throughout the state."
Torlakson, who has the support of the teachers' union, said the ruling could hurt students by requiring them to be taught by inexperienced teachers rather than finding ways to bring in more experienced and "arguably more effective teachers."
But the ACLU and others argued that instead of experienced teachers, students at the schools were being taught by a succession of substitute teachers, as more experienced teachers successfully fought to stay in more attractive schools.
"This settlement is about giving our most disadvantaged children a fighting chance at their schools," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California. "As the court recognized, the settlement establishes an educational Hippocratic Oath to do no harm to fragile, struggling schools that are trying to turn the corner."
Thousands of teachers will be affected by the ruling when LAUSD sends out pink slips March 15, effective for the 2011-2012 school year, as it tries to close a $400 million deficit.
"We have a very hard job ahead of us," said LAUSD board president Monica Garcia. The fact that we can now factor things other than seniority will help us serve our students better."
While the remaining district schools would still be subject to layoffs by seniority, LAUSD will have to adhere to a percentage cap so that each school won't suffer layoffs more than the district average. The cap could mean that at relatively stable schools with a high number of veteran teachers, such as many in the San Fernando Valley, teachers with decades of experience could still be laid off.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who supported the settlement between the LAUSD and the ACLU, lauded Friday's ruling. The mayor said it would expand the dialogue on performance evaluation of teachers, which has been a hot button issue.
"I don't think that any system can work - particularly a system where we're focused on nurturing and educating our kids to be the best they can be - ... where performance isn't taken into account at all," he said.
The lawsuit by the ACLU was filed on behalf of students at three LAUSD middle schools - Gompers in South L.A., Markham in Watts and John Liechty in Pico-Union.
The ACLU claimed that the predominantly low-income black and Latino students there were deprived of a fair education when more than half of the teachers at those schools were laid off.
At Liechty, 72 percent of the teachers received layoff notices, while almost the entire English department along and every eighth grade history teacher was let go at Markham. Many students were being taught by 10 different substitutes in the first four months of school.
"This case started when students... came to teachers like me and said, `Why are we losing our teachers? Why am I being taught by substitutes? said Nick Melvoin, a Markham ESL teacher who was laid off twice.
"Today they won."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.