Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger today approved the landmark settlement in Reed v. State of California, et al., a class action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Public Counsel, and Morrison & Foerster, LLP, in February 2010 on behalf of students at three Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) middle schools. The lawsuit targeted the devastating impact of massive and disproportionate teacher layoffs on students’ right to equal educational opportunity under the California Constitution.

The settlement, reached between the plaintiffs and LAUSD and the Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, protects students in up to 45 Targeted Schools in the unfortunate event of budget-based teacher layoffs and provides support and resources aimed at stabilizing and improving these schools, including retention incentives for teachers and principals.  The Targeted Schools will be determined annually and will include 25 under-performing and difficult-to-staff schools that have suffered from staff retention issues yet are starting to make positive strides. In addition, up to 20 schools will be selected based on the likelihood that the school will be negatively and disproportionately affected by teacher turnover.  To ensure that any impact from preserving teacher positions at the Targeted Schools is fairly distributed, the settlement provides that no school at or above the district-wide average of layoffs will be negatively affected.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against the state and LAUSD for carrying out budget cuts that disproportionately affected the three schools, decimating their teacher staffs.  While many schools around the state lost zero teachers to the budget crisis, more than half of the teaching staffs at Gompers, Liechty and Markham middle schools lost their jobs as permanent teachers. At Liechty, 72 percent of the teachers received layoff notices; at Markham, the layoffs included almost the entire English department along with every 8th grade history teacher.

The teacher layoffs at Gompers, Liechty and Markham denied students their right to equal educational opportunity as guaranteed by the state Constitution.

This settlement is about giving our most disadvantaged children a fighting chance at their schools. 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,” said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel for the ACLU/SC.

“Judge Highberger literally changed the educational lives of tens of thousands of LA kids, promising them they won’t have to carry the budgetary pain of the school district and instead can expect a chance to learn when they go to school,” said Catherine Lhamon, director of impact litigation at Public Counsel.  “As bleak as the State’s financial crisis is, the good news today is that Judge Highberger restored the promise that all kids should be equal at school.”

Sean Gates, a partner with Morrison & Foerster, co-counsel in the case, praised the ruling. "This consent decree is the first in the country to recognize what everyone already knew -laying off teachers at already vulnerable schools can and does deny kids their right to educational opportunity. By stopping this practice and providing thoughtful intervention, the decree is the first necessary step toward real reform," Gates said.

Dr. Michelle Fine, a professor at City University of New York, testified in court that the settlement ensured no school bore the burden more than another.

“This is very sad case. It is about distributing pain,” said Fine, an expert witness in the case. “We have policies that have distributed pain and burden in a way that low-income schools have for generations paid a price.”

Image: Catherine Lhamon, Public Counsel's director of impact education, and Mark Rosenbaum, ACLU/SC's chief counsel, during an earlier victory in this effort.