The Los Angeles Unified School District is in for major changes in the coming years after it reached a historic agreement with the ACLU on Wednesday that would completely overhaul teacher hiring practices in the district. But while the ruling is a major ruling for advocates of educational equity, it also puts new dents in the armor of teachers’ unions.

The Los Angeles Board of Education unanimously approved a settlement Wednesday that would bar the district from issuing layoff notices strictly on the basis of seniority, which has long been the traditional layoff practice. Late Wednesday the Los Angeles teachers union responded by threatening to sue the district because it was left out of the talks. The settlement was reached after the district was sued in February by the ACLU and a group of other civil rights attorneys who said that the district hiring practice was harming school kids.

The ACLU accused the district of violating the civil rights of students in three of the district’s poorest schools by laying off as many as 75 percent of the teaching staff at Gompers Middle School in South L.A., Markham Middle School in Watts and John Liechty Middle School in Pico-Union last year. The district and the entire state of California have traditionally relied on so-called “last hired, first fired” hiring provisions, where the youngest, newest teachers get the boot first. But because the youngest and newest teachers are concentrated in the poorest schools, they’re usually the first to be kicked out the door every time annual layoff notices come around. The LA Times reports that the agreement would save as many as 45 other schools from similar layoffs. Now, pink slip notices will have to be spread throughout the district in a more equitable manner, even if it means that teachers with more seniority at one school lose their jobs when less experienced teachers at other schools get to keep theirs. The agreement must still be brought before a judge and approved by the court.

With the recession, and more than twenty years into the post-Prop 13 era which strangled state education dollars, California schools have been hit hard by teacher layoffs. In recent years, layoffs have spawned mass protests up and down the state, and kindergarteners and nursing students alike have taken to the streets to protest the yearly budget cuts.

For students at Liechty, Markham and Gompers, the cuts have meant that some kids started the school year with no teacher appointed to teach them. Kids also cycle through as many as seven substitute teachers in a year for a single class, and are often given no homework, tests, quizzes or group projects, and forget about field trips, because there was no teacher assigned for any substantial length of time to teach kids. Meanwhile, some classrooms sit empty because teachers with seniority still on the LAUSD payroll also have the right to turn down open teaching positions in rough schools, and therefore don’t have to fill the classrooms left empty by the layoffs of their younger colleagues.

The ACLU argued that kids were not receiving an adequate education, for one, but also that students in the poorest schools were being treated unequally. Of course, kids in affluent schools staffed with veteran teachers are not impacted nearly as much every time pink slips go out every year.

Last hired, first fired policies have undoubtedly created a great deal of turmoil in the poorest LAUSD schools, but they’re also being examined across the rest of the country, where the education reform movement is trying to roll back teacher tenure on the argument that such provisions protect mediocre teachers. The education reform fervor has reached a fever pitch, and many states have passed laws at the urging of the Obama administration that revamped teacher evaluation methods to tie a teacher’s job security to their students’ test scores. The national debate is often about teacher accountability; rarely is it about educational equity, which is what makes the LAUSD settlement unique.

The settlement also opens the door to a host of other questions that the rest of the country is currently grappling with. If not traditional seniority-based hiring, what else? What is the smartest way to evaluate a teacher’s accomplishments? Teacher unions have been backed into a corner and have been forced to accept new so-called “accountability” measures that evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness based on their student test scores. Many teachers argue that evaluations must be more comprehensive and holistic, and take into account qualitative measures – student and parent input, for example – of a teacher’s impact.

But today’s settlement is yet another brick through the windows of the increasingly shaky fortress of teacher unions’ political power. United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers union, put up a feeble defense against the lawsuit, and as of today had not commented on the ruling. 

But earlier this year, UTLA president A.J. Duffy took the airwaves to make a point. 

“The blame the teacher game does no good,” Duffy said on LA’s 89.1 KUOR. “The district has a misproportionate amount of new teachers at John Liechty because they failed to follow their own policy…which requires that that school and all others have a mix of new, mid-career and veteran teachers.

“If you allow teachers to interview and hire teachers at schools, you’ll never have a bad teacher,” Duffy said, building what ended up sounding like an irrelevant argument against the ACLU’s chief counsel Mark Rosenbaum on that radio debate.

Even though “last in, first out” hiring practices are both districtwide policy and state law, it’s teacher unions who are the last ones standing around to defend the practice. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the district have all praised the settlement. Unions have little defense in the face of such lawsuits though.

In Los Angeles, as in the rest of the country, teachers’ unions are clearly losing the messaging war, even though the current education landscape is not entirely of their own making. California ranks 47th in per pupil education spending, and is thousands of dollars behind the national average. For decades teachers have been in classrooms making do with less and less while implementing federal and state reforms that are continually thrown their way. But today it’s teachers who are feeling the brunt of the heat in the national education reform debate.

And yet, it wasn’t teachers who created and pushed for No Child Left Behind. It wasn’t teachers who demanded that kids’ education be reduced to reading and math, and that kids’ educational achievement, and teachers’ job performance, and their schools’ rankings hinge on standardized test scores. It certainly wasn’t teachers who advocated that California voters pass Prop 13 in 1978, which would effectively cripple education funding from the state by capping property taxes for homeowners. They don’t deserve the public beating they’re taking on the national scene but teachers have not figured out how to respond to the fact that seniority-based hiring is one of the factors that has further entrenched inequality in American classrooms .

These days teachers end up looking selfish and spoiled for trying to defend worker’s rights like tenure and pensions that most Americans gave up years ago–or never had in the first place. Unions can find their way out of the corner they’ve been pushed into either by recognizing the role they play in exacerbating inequity in American schools or by funneling the growing popular anger toward the real culprits who favor war spending over education spending. Till then, the education reform movement and lightning rod lawsuits will continue to roll back rights that teachers have struggled for decades to win and retain.