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September 17, 2010

Sacramento Bee: Ruling on teacher layoffs a beacon of equity for kids

Sacramento Bee | By Darrell Steinberg


Last month, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck a major victory for civil rights by interpreting a section of the voluminous California Education Code to be about what's best for schoolchildren. Imagine that.

In response to a lawsuit filed by attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel, Judge William Highberger enjoined the Los Angeles Unified School District from laying off wildly disproportionate numbers of teachers at three middle schools. Because of state law generally requiring districts to lay off their least senior teachers first, these three schools, with mostly junior teachers, faced losses of as much as 60 percent of their faculty, compared to 15 percent or less at other district middle schools across town.

The judge cited a little-known subparagraph of the law that says districts may deviate from seniority in their layoff decisions in order to comply with "constitutional requirements related to equal protection of the laws."

It was a victory for the equal-opportunity principle upon which our system of public education is supposed to be built. But it was a victory on the head of a pin; for now, it applies only to the three schools named in the lawsuit. And given that the law had been on the books for more than a quarter century before anybody understood it well enough to invoke it, it would appear to need clarifying for districts statewide.

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