The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org .
This week San Diego Unified sent out layoff notices to roughly 1,500 employees, and it’s all but certain those layoffs are going to hurt the poorest schools worst.
Neither San Diego Unified nor the San Diego Educators Association, the local teachers union, would send me a list showing which schools have the most teachers facing layoffs. (San Diego Unified’s spokeswoman said they wouldn’t provide it. Teachers union president Lindsay Burningham didn’t respond.)
But one staff member at Millennial Tech Middle school, whose name we’re withholding because she wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said that 17 out of 21 teachers there received a layoff notice. Most teachers at nearby Knox Middle schools are also facing layoffs, she said.
It’s just one example of an issue that’s played out for years. It goes back to longstanding but controversial state law that requires school districts to first lay off its newest teachers  before cutting those with more seniority.
It’s called the last in, first out policy. And it was a major piece of the high-profile Vergara v. California  case that captured national attention in 2014.
That case was built on complaints from a group of students in Los Angeles who argued that teacher protections, including last in, first out policies, disproportionately impact poor students, because teachers at their schools were generally first to go in a layoff situation.
Because teachers are placed in schools based on seniority, Vergara plaintiffs argued, the more senior teachers generally seek schools with higher test scores, and the system has a detrimental impact on the poorest schools.
A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles sided with the students. Two years later, however, an appeals court overturned the decision, leaving the teacher protections in place. But the issues highlighted during trial continue to play out in school districts across the state.
San Diego Unified board president Richard Barrera testified during the trial  that layoffs tend to hit poor schools hardest, but said that doesn’t capture the entire picture.
When the district issued layoffs in 2008, Fay Elementary, in City Heights, stood to lose 24 out of 26 of its teachers. About 98 percent of Fay students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a rough gauge of a school’s poverty level.
Most of those layoffs ended up being canceled. But three years later, when the district faced another round of layoffs, 25 out of 27 teachers received pink slips  – many of them the same teachers who received layoff notices the first time around.
It’s important to note that layoff notices don’t necessarily mean those employees will be laid off. This week, the district notified 1,476 employees they could be laid off, which it’s required to do by March 15.
It’s holding out small hope that the governor will send more money later this year, which it could use to offset some of the cuts. The district is also offering an incentive for qualifying educators to retire early. If enough people take the deal, the savings could potentially soften the damage.
But even if the district is able soften or avoid cuts in the end, in some ways the damage is already being done. Layoff notices send ripples through the teaching ranks. Teachers worrying about where they’ll land the following year, or whether they’ll have a job at all, tends to have detrimental impact on teacher morale and school culture.
And if the layoffs do in fact happen, schools like Millennial Tech could see a complete turnover of nearly all its staff. So while Superintendent Cindy Marten has promised to keep class sizes low, some schools may have to say goodbye to most or all of their teachers.
That layoffs hit the poorest schools hardest is generally accepted as true – both by people who want to preserve the current system and those who want to dismantle it.
“Pink-slipping disproportionately affects poorer schools – absolutely,” Barrera told the San Diego Unified-Tribune  in 2010.
Plaintiffs in the Vergara case used that point to argue the system should be blown up. Barrera, on the other hand, used the same point to argue that schools should avoid layoffs in the first place. And the current system, he said, helps school districts do that.
He pointed to the layoffs teachers faced in 2012 . That year, 1,372 teachers were laid off. But Barrera was able to broker a deal with the teachers union wherein teachers agreed to put off a series of promised pay raises and extend five unpaid furlough days for an additional two years. That deal allowed the district to avoid layoffs altogether. By Sept. 1, every teacher who had been laid off was back in school.
Barrera admitted a system that prioritizes layoffs by seniority is inherently imperfect. But it’s fairer, he said, than any other measure, like trying base the decisions on teacher performance. Do that, he said, teachers would be driven by competition and would be less likely to collaborate with their colleagues or agree to the kind of deal they did in 2012.
Josh Lipshutz, an attorney who represented the Vergara plaintiffs, told me at the time  he found Barrera’s logic circular and his testimony downright “bizarre.”
“Look, nobody wants layoffs. But layoffs are reality,” Lipshutz said. “We’re not arguing that teachers should be laid off. But in speaking with administrators we heard over and over that everybody knows who the worst teachers are. All we’re saying is that in a layoff environment, why would you not want to include those teachers?” he said.
This year, Barrera’s argument will face a new test. Roughly 1,500 employees are facing layoffs . But if there’s any hope of brokering a new deal with teachers union, wherein they delay pay raises or other forms of compensation, those conversations haven’t surfaced publicly.
And it’s all but certain that no matter how many teachers are ultimately laid off, the seniority-based system that hits poor schools hardest will play out for years to come.
School Accountability Just Got More … Colorful
The California Department of Education just rolled out a new school dashboard, and education officials have called it the most comprehensive way yet of measuring school progress.
The dashboard comes complete  with color-coded pie slices that reflect a school’s performance on a host of measures, including graduation rates, suspensions and scores on standardized tests.
It replaces the state’s API system, wherein each school was given a composite number based on multiple assessments. That system made it easier for parents to compare schools by performance, which many educators and school districts didn’t like.
This one doesn’t make it easy to compare schools at all. More concerning, it tends to paint a far rosier picture of school performance  than ranking systems in the past, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis:
“Nearly 80% of schools serving grades three through eight are ranked as medium- to high-performing in the new ratings, earning them positive colors on report cards sent to parents.
Last year in state testing at those same schools, the majority of students failed to reach English and math standards. More than 50 of those schools whose average math scores fell below proficiency receive the dashboard’s highest rating for math. (The dashboard does not include high school scores.)”
Critics of the old API system said boiling down a school’s performance to a single number was inherently limited. It was so clear that it affected real estate choices. Adding a variety of measures to the dashboard would paint a more holistic picture of the good things happening in schools, they said.
But here’s the thing: Test scores are still going to impact real estate markets. In fact, sites like Zillow and Trulia already include information  from GreatSchools, which ranks schools more like they were under the old API system. While those measures aren’t perfect – what is? – they’re roundly accurate and much easier to understand.
And in the absence of a dashboard that parents find usable, it’s likely more and more parents will turn to alternative sources that provide information they’re looking for.
San Diego School Board Election Proposal Would Prevent Future Barreras
Arguably, no single person has had a greater impact on the status, shape and direction of San Diego Unified than current school board president Richard Barrera .
In 2013, when the school board was searching for its next superintendent, Barrera was first to suggest Cindy Marten take the role. He was instrumental in getting her selected, just as he was with Marne Foster, who resigned in 2016 after she pleaded guilty to receiving illegal gifts as a public official. He’s played a key role in building up a school board stocked with five union-backed politicians. He’s even managed to get former San Diego Unified employees hired in nearby districts, like Sweetwater Union.
Barrera has been elected to the school board three times. All three times, he’s run unopposed.
And in an op-ed published this week , Barrera argues that any move to limit school board members to two terms would be a slight against the poor children of Barrio Logan and southeastern San Diego who deserve candidates who are out to serve their interests.
Barrera was responding to a change to the City Charter proposed by members of the City Council .
Even though the mayor and City Council has little to no involvement with San Diego city schools, the rules that govern school board elections are outlined in the City Charter. But unlike how Council members are elected – solely by members of their districts – school board members are chosen first by their district in the primary, and then by voters citywide in the general election.
The new system, then, would make school board elections consistent with the way races for City Council, the state Legislature and Congress are held. In November, San Diego voters approved Measure K, which made it impossible to win a mayoral or City Council race outright in the primary.
The local Democratic Party and unions strongly supported those changes, recognizing it would make them more competitive in city races. Those same groups, however, have not been nearly as eager to support the change at the school board, where they already have no trouble winning.
Barrera and school board trustee Kevin Beiser argue in the op-ed that the change to school board elections represents little more than a power grab by city Republicans.
City Councilman Chris Cate countered in his own op-ed  that the current “process gives unfair advantage to special interest groups — with the power of money and endorsements — to spend tens of thousands of dollars to support their preferred candidate. San Diego Unified is the only school district in the county that conducts board member elections in this way.”
There’s something to that argument. Vlad Kogan, a former VOSD reporter who has since become a political science professor at Ohio State University, told me last year  that endorsements from labor unions tends to carry a lot of weight in school board elections.
School board elections tend to be low-profile affairs. Candidates usually have less name recognition among voters citywide. And if voters haven’t done much independent research, an endorsement from the teachers union signals that the candidate has been vetted. Not only that, but candidates backed by labor unions will benefit from union resources, like mailers, and have a motivated base of voters.
Next week, the City Council will hear the proposal and potentially put it before voters in the next election, which might not be until June 2018. If voters approve it, San Diego Unified won’t see any more three-term board members.