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


Teacher layoffs still have people worried and anxious, even if there end up being fewer of them than originally thought.

Most of the questions I’ve received for this column so far have focused on how layoffs disproportionately impact poor schools, why that is and what can be done to reverse the trend.

The Learning Curve

Here are some examples:

“How do we break the grip of unions on public education, which causes the weakest and least motivated to go into and stay in teaching, and is most destructive to the future of the poor and non-white students?”

“Does San Diego’s teacher placement, layoff and rotation policy have a disparate impact on students of color? The most inexperienced teachers are routinely placed and then fired out of the lowest performing schools. The ones that aren’t fired are rotated to higher performing schools. The chaos keeps students from learning. Sure seems to me San Diego’s ‘neutral’ policy has a definite disparate impact on a suspect class.”

I’m not going to touch the political necessity and value of teachers unions, but at the heart of these questions is: How do current layoff policies and procedures impact disadvantaged students disproportionately?

It’s something Mario Koran tackled in March, when the first round of pinks slips in San Diego Unified were dispersed. At 16 of the 20 schools with the largest number of pink slips, at least 75 percent of students received a free and reduced lunch – a common measure of poverty at schools.

San Diego Unified still hasn’t released final layoff numbers or detailed at which schools they’re happening, but at the last school board meeting, officials announced the number of layoffs would be reduced to below 200, from the more than 900 notices sent out in March.

The district said it still doesn’t know which schools will be affected most by layoffs next year, but that the high number of teacher retirements could mean schools in wealthier neighborhoods may be impacted by the turnover just as much as low-income schools.

The impact on low-income students that generally occurs during layoffs stems from a longstanding state policy of employee seniority – the so-called last in, first out rule. The system often results in more concentrated layoffs in lower-income schools, since teachers with more seniority often opt for higher-income schools with better test scores, lower suspension rates and more resources.

The way layoffs are conducted in California can lead to massive churn. Because of a state-mandated timeline, districts often issue pink slips in March before they know their exact budget situation. Then after the budget is finalized, the district shuffles around some positions and often many pink slips are rescinded.

But even once layoff notices are rescinded, the process has a bigger impact on low-income schools, which tend to have more junior employees. Budget cuts can eliminate a position in one school or in the central office, but if the employee in that position is more senior, he or she will be bumped to a different position, where a more junior employee may have been – and that junior employee will either be bumped to another position or laid off. Because the most junior employees tend to work at poor schools, those schools still face disruption – even if it’s from an employee switching positions, instead of being laid off. In other words, even if a poor school doesn’t end up with fewer teachers, it still might end up with a slate of new employees — people who don’t know the environment or the students who go there.

The instability from the churn impacts students’ ability to succeed.

There are some things that districts can do to mitigate the impact on needier students.

If two teachers were hired on the same date, the district can use a “tiebreaker,” which allows the governing board of the district to use discretion between the two employees, depending on the district’s and students’ needs.

Back in 2011, when San Diego Unified sent another slew of layoff notices, the district’s primary tiebreaker criteria was whether a teacher worked at a low-performing school.

A district can also deviate from the seniority rule through a process called “skipping” if a teacher or other employee has a specialized credential or provides a service that more senior employees do not, such as a special education teacher, a bilingual teacher or a school nurse.

The matter of teacher seniority was a part of the landmark Vergara v. California case, filed in 2012 on behalf of a group of students in Los Angeles.

The case alleged that California statues regarding teacher tenure, layoffs and dismissals – including last in, first out – have a disparate impact on poor and minority students.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge sided with the students in 2014. Two years later, however, an appellate court overturned the decision, leaving the teacher protections in place.

San Diego Unified Trustee Richard Barrera testified during the Vergara trial – and while he admitted that the policies did impact poorer schools more, he argued that the current system could help districts avoid layoffs.

An example, he said, was how San Diego Unified managed to avoid more than 1,300 layoffs in 2012, by brokering a deal with the teachers union. Teachers agreed to put off a series of promised pay raises and extend five unpaid furlough days for an additional two years and in the fall, every teacher who had been laid off was back in school.

Local Ed News

More than 500 students at Scripps Ranch High must retake an Advanced Placement exam after the College Board, which oversees college admissions, and its test administrator Educational Testing Service, invalidated their test scores from May.

Advanced Placement exams are the culmination of courses that allow high school students to obtain college credit. Some students can take enough of these courses and exams to place out of one or two semesters’ worth of required college classes, saving them tuition or opening up the possibility of taking more elective and upper-level courses, studying abroad or pursuing a double major.

Initially, San Diego Unified held that the district had no reason to believe there was cheating. The scores were void because of a breach of testing protocol. Students were seated too close together at six-foot tables instead of the required eight-foot tables, reported KPBS. Scripps Ranch High School proctors also used partitions, which aren’t allowed.

But the Union-Tribune obtained an incident report that revealed a student was found cheating, triggering the College Board’s investigation into the school’s exam protocol. That directly contradicts the district’s statement that it believed there was no cheating during the exam.

The district is now facing numerous legal complaints from parents and students over the matter, according to the U-T.

Ed News Roundup

• We’ve raised questions about the role of online courses in San Diego Unified’s graduation rates. We’ve also questioned the quality of those courses. The Los Angeles Times is asking the same questions of L.A. Unified.

• As a new education reporter, I’m very grateful for this roundup Education Week did of all the K-12 education-related Supreme Court decisions made in the 2016-2017 term.

• A bill working its way through the California Legislature would encourage school districts and developers to provide housing for teachers. (Press-Enterprise)

• The largest teachers union in the United States wants Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to address a series of concerns by Sept. 1 or resign. The 3-million member union also has recently taken a stronger stance against charter schools. (Ed Week, U.S. News & World Report)

• A new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that early childhood education has the biggest return on investment when it comes to education spending, but only 3 percent of current U.S. spending goes there.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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