Posts Tagged seniority

Seniority and Tenure, the Absence of Human Decision-Making

Published by —  The only big surprise regarding the Vergara v. California decision is that it took so long.

I first read a teachers contract 20-ish years ago.  A group of parents who were furious about their kids’ schooling had organized an advocacy group.  Of its several subcommittees, I joined the one examining the contract.  Cluelessly, I thought the meetings would be like a book group, where smart, funny people reflected on what they’d read.  Well, the people were smart, funny and reflective, but the contract itself was terrifying, the meetings upsetting.  My darling twins were in kindergarten at the time.  This contract was governing their education?  My family was in no position to start funding a couple of lifetimes of private school.

But suddenly I did understand how those kindergarten teachers could saunter in 5, 10, 15 minutes after the bell, still chatting and sucking down iced coffee.  Tenure made them virtually untouchable.  When I complained to the principal, he shrugged and said he had to pick his battles.  At least they weren’t bad teachers, he assured me.  But making a stink about their tardiness would sour the teacher atmosphere in the building; vengeance would rain on him torrentially.

Then a Teacher-of-the-Year was laid off, aka “bumped,” out of his teaching position for lack of seniority.  Despite the wealth of evidence about his effectiveness, the Last In, First Out, or “LIFO” rule applied.  No one could stop this insanity?  Well, no, LIFO is still a problem, all over the nation.

During the annual summer ritual called “cattle call,” teachers bidding on open jobs wrote their date of hire on placards so as they bid, holding up the cards, administrators could determine seniority.  This was the process for giving college-educated professionals the responsibility for educating children.  Teachers were “excessed” because a program got cut or enrollment dropped got preference for hiring, so “consolidations” in another district school sent four utterly incompetent teachers into one of my kids’ 9th grade.  The year was disastrous for him.

Over my 20 years as an education columnist, the kids inside the public education industry grew ever more invisible behind a dense thicket of district, state and federal rules, on top of contractual provisions.  Students were trapped in environments designed to serve the adults, first and foremost.

Then last week my inbox was flooded with press releases from myriad organizations, hailing or decrying the Vergara v. California decision.  In brief, Judge Rolf Treu agreed with nine student plaintiffs that laws and labor agreements cementing teachers’ rights to tenure and hiring by seniority did constitute a violation of the students’ civil rights.  With refreshingly dramatic flair, he compared his decision to that of Brown v. Board of Education which exposed racial segregation in schools.  His point was that like segregation, teacher tenure and seniority adversely affect kids.  So why, pray, do we keep these horrible practices in place?

The only big surprise regarding this decision is that it took so long.  Many court challenges have already failed.  And this one might still fail, as it winds its way through layers of court systems.

On the upside, diverse advocates are out banging drums, pots, pans, anything loud, begging other states to mount similar challenges as soon as possible.  They hope to fashion a rational decision in the court of public opinion long before the U.S. Supreme Court takes their shot.  Honestly, the decision entices my now-jaded self back into close observance of education’s legal morass.  It could be fun to see the kids win a few.

But here’s the downside: in the big picture, seniority and tenure are merely two trees in a large, dense forest shrouding kids’ opportunities.  The charter school movement has taught us that even the ability to hire and fire based on merit is far from a panacea.  By definition, charters are free from a number of similarly-bad local and contractual regulations, but still even the successful ones struggle.  Local, state and federal ordinances and regulations are still in force, many of which are specifically hostile to charters.  The regulatory forces affecting schools are by no means laser-focused on doing right by the kids.

Teachers unions assert that contractual provisions are no biggie.  The problem is that kids and their families are getting worse.  You can’t make great cars, clothes, buildings without good materials.  Increasingly, dysfunctional families send emotionally chaotic or even feral kids to school.  And it’s true that all too often home support is thin, if not completely lacking.  Kids’ addictions to electronic sitters, sedatives and time-wasters are undermining their ability to read, never mind pay attention in school.  The unions are not wrong about this.

But to use the troubles of the kids themselves as an excuse for the failures of the education industry is wrong.  Education’s problems are many and across sectors.  Every single issue needs to be addressed.  But we can certainly start with the glaringly obvious places where we see contracts, policies or laws serving adult interests, not the students’.

So celebrate the Vergara decision as a small, important victory.  But don’t think for a moment that the kids are even remotely out of the woods.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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A Union Giant Converts to School Reform

Published by —  Los Angeles union-man AJ Duffy’s conversion to school reform and charter school warrior means seniority and protectionism have lost.

Game over: Hiring teachers by seniority lost big.

Protecting incompetent teachers also went down in defeat.

The story is a jaw-dropper:

Last July, term limits forced A.J. Duffy to step down as President of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) after being elected twice, for a total of 6 years. Duffy, 67, happens to be built like a stereotypical Mafia don, speaks with gravelly voice in a native-Brooklyn accent, and sports expensive suits and two-toned shoes worthy of Tony Soprano. His active union involvement began in 1983. Locally, he was famous for never meeting a school reform he couldn’t despise.

Los Angeles’ Mayor Villaraigosa described him as “one unwavering roadblock to reform.”

In 2010 L.A. Weekly ran an expose called “The Dance of the Lemons,” covering the astronomical expense of either parking incompetent teachers in a “rubber room” where they were paid to do nothing, or letting them continue to mis-serve kids. In his “Speak Out” column, Duffy barked back that “the number of truly bad teachers in our ranks could fit on the head of a pin.”

He clutched the union torch no matter how bad it was for kids. That’s what such leaders get elected and paid well to do.

But on September 1, a scant two months later, Duffy announced that he’d become the executive director of the fledgling network of Apple Academy Charter Public Schools. That’s charter schools, long considered arch-enemies by union officials. Duffy once summarily dismissed charters as “the death and destruction of public education.” Unions claim charters siphon off resources from “real” public schools, which is to say 19th-century factory-model schools that see teachers as interchangeable cogs in an educational machine – hence the obsession with seniority as the only way to differentiate teachers. The real issue is that most charters are not unionized, which reduces the number of unionized teaching positions and the power and dues that come with. Charters are public schools, held publically accountable for their performance.

Now Duffy is submitting a proposal ASAP to open his own charter school next fall. Charters get a big win out of his conversion too.

Mind you, Duffy wants his school to be unionized, preferably with his old colleagues at the UTLA. But he’ll forgo any union affiliation that does not give him what he wants.

For example, with the same pugnacious language he used to fight on the other side, he insists his school be free of hiring by seniority. Moreover, he’d like the dismissal process for incompetent teachers to take under 10 days.

So here it is writ large: A union official’s job is to protect and enhance the health, welfare and power of the private corporation that is a teachers’ labor union.

But if an ex-union official expects to shoulder the responsibility of actually educating students, well, hold on! That’s a whole other story. Seniority and protectionist contract provisions will surely undermine academic success. When the chips are down, even a guy like Duffy knows that.

In 2010, Duffy testified to the state Senate against a bill that would have given school districts more flexibility regarding hiring and lay offs. California is among 12 states that mandate hiring-by-seniority and lay-offs by last-in/first-out. In a video clip of the hearing — on – he says, “There is no credible data that show that doing away with seniority or tenure will radically improve student outcomes.” Parents would beg to differ. And what magic initiative does improve achievement “radically,” anyway? Duffy goes on to insist that the only effect of the proposed legislation will be to allow principals to fire teachers they don’t personally like and to hire cheaper, less senior teachers. (This latter accusation has merit, but seniority is not the solution.)

But that was then. Now Duffy wants guarantees that if the Los Angeles student population declines, his precious new charter school isn’t stuck with any of UTLA’s displaced teachers. Now he’s fighting to protect the hard, good work of interviewing, vetting, hiring and training a community of teachers. Now that his goal is education, he can’t afford to blow his chances of success by treating teachers as interchangeable parts, one just as good as another, in 19th-century school machinery.

Teachers are getting fed up with these hypocrisies. Across the country breakaway groups are telling their unions to quit with the incessant power mongering and instead, spend teachers’ hard-earned union dues on helping actual classroom teachers be more successful. The NewTLA is one such group.

In a recent Harris Poll, 72 percent of the 2,450 households surveyed said that they believe unions are too involved in politics and with fighting change instead of helping to bring it about. But more impressively, well over half – 60 percent – of the union households themselves feel similarly. Only 47 percent of union members believe they’re getting their money’s worth for the dues they pay.

In other words, the rank-and-file want their unions to lay off politics – fighting for practices and politicians that undermine education – and get busier with the important work at hand.

Like getting Duffy’s students educated.

Honestly, the fat lady sang. It’s over. Seniority and protectionism lost.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at

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