Teacher Tenure Fight Comes to New York City

Monday, July 28, 2014 - 12:19 PM

Campbell Brown, center, is helping a group of parents change New York's teacher tenure rules (Beth Fertig/WNYC)

Seven parents filed a lawsuit with New York State Supreme Court on Monday seeking to overturn teacher tenure laws that they said prevent their children from receiving a "sound basic education" that is guaranteed by New York State’s constitution.

“Having bad teachers who can’t be removed, having a rating system which makes a mockery of a legitimate rating system for teachers, these are all systematic deprivations of the right to a sound education," said attorney Jay Lefkowitz. His firm, Kirkland and Ellis, is working pro bono for a new group called the Partnership for Educational Justice founded by former TV anchor Campbell Brown. They note that more than 90 percent of the state's teachers were rated effective or highly effective in 2012 but only 31 percent of state students were proficient on their math and reading tests in 2013.

The suit follows on the heels of the controversial Vergara ruling in California against tenure protections in June. Of the seven plaintiffs named in the suit, five are from New York City and two from Rochester.

Bronx resident Angeles Barragan said her daughter fell behind due to an incompetent teacher who didn’t assign homework and didn’t help her child learn to read. Now Natalie is repeating second grade at Kings College School P.S. 94.

“What I’m looking for is changes. I’m not looking for them to get rid of anybody,” Barragan said in Spanish. “I’m looking for changes so that teachers in classrooms really want to teach children.”

Another plaintiff, Nina Doster of Queens, said her soon to be second-grader isn't reading on grade level at P.S. 140 because of his classroom teacher. "She didn't put the effort into it," said Doster, who is also an organizer for the group StudentsFirst, which helped gather several dozen supporters to announce the lawsuit outside City Hall.

“I am so inspired by what these people are doing,” Brown said, tearing up during her brief appearance at the press conference. “This is not going to be easy and they are so incredibly brave to be taking this on.”

The suit claims the awarding of tenure, plus complicated disciplinary proceedings and seniority protections for teachers all violate the state constitution's guarantee of a sound basic education. But while it's modeled after a similar suit in California, there are big differences between the laws in the two states. In California, tenure kicks in after only 18 months. In New York, it takes three years — and in New York City, almost half of all eligible teachers have had their tenure deferred for an extra year since former Mayor Michael Bloomberg cracked down on the process. New York also started a new teacher evaluation system.

These are a few of the reasons why skeptics believe the suit is likely to fail. Michael Rebell, who runs the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, is familiar with the state's "sound basic education" provision. In 2003, he persuaded the state's highest court that New York's funding formula was unconstitutional because it left city schools with outdated textbooks and crumbling facilities

"That the courts are willing to take a stand on," he said, adding a challenge over tenure is something courts are more likely to leave with the legislature.

Critics see the latest suit as part of a growing assault on tenure by groups opposed to unions. They also say tenure is not a job for life but a guarantee of due process.

"Tenure protects all teachers from nepotism, favoritism, discrimination, patronage and other forms of arbitrary dismissal," said Karen Magee, the president of New York State United Teachers.

The city's teacher union questioned the motivation of Brown and her supporters who include critics of unions such as StudentsFirst and the hedge fund billionaire David Welch. The firm Kirkland and Ellis also worked on California's "parent trigger" law that helps convert failing schools into charters.

“Campbell Brown may be tearing up, but her secret hedge-fund supporters will be crying all the way to the bank if she succeeds in her mission to undercut public education and privatize our schools," said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. "Parents know that attacking teachers is not the answer to the problems of New York’s public schools.”




Comments [4]

M.K. McClure from USA

Why is super-rich Campbell Brown suddenly both an expert in education and knows that eliminating tenure is the ultimate solution. Some of my children's best teachers were older, veteran teachers. These were the professionaLos who got to school early and stayed late. In all my experiences with teachers, they proved to be more dedicated than professionals in other careers. With low pay, disappearing pensions and now tenure at risk, why anyone would choose public education as a career is beyond me. I informed both daughters to go in another direction. Will Campbell attack college tenure next?? Where too often profs with a fraction of the students public school teachers do, suggest to put together competent lessons. Everybody loses when people gang up on a profession.

Jul. 28 2014 09:49 PM
john Culpepper from Brooklyn

The idea that teachers cannot be fired is erroneous. Teachers can be fired for cause at any time, but they are entitled to due process.

The fact is that like social insurance, anti-monopoly regulations, and public health and safety standards, not to mention the right to a fair trial, teacher tenure is a sign of good government since it was first instituted in Bismark's Germany and is common around the world, especially in those countries whose children score well on the international tests so-called education reformers like to cite.

According to a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly:
"Tenure has existed in K-12 public education since 1909, when “good-government” reformers borrowed the concept from Germany. The idea spread quickly from New Jersey to New York to Chicago and then across the country. During the Progressive Era, both teachers unions and school-accountability hawks embraced the policy, which prevented teaching jobs from being given out as favors by political bosses. If it was legally difficult to fire a good teacher, she couldn’t be replaced by the alderman’s unqualified sister-in-law."

The people who are pushing these frivolous, anti-social, and deleterious lawsuits do not have the public interest at heart but are out only for their own gain at the expense of everyone else, especially our children. It is beyond loathsome of so-called "Public" broadcasting to give them a platform.

Jul. 28 2014 07:25 PM
RR from Floral Park

Instead of blaming teachers, those 2 parents in the article should be working with their kids at home.

Jul. 28 2014 06:26 PM
Louise Flax from Norwalk CT

Is tenure the problem? I was a teacher and a parent in a local public school. what about the admistrators? Were they supervising and helping the new teachers in the three years before they received tenure? Once an administrator sees that there is an incompetent teacher on the staff, does he/she go through due diligence to remove the teacher?? There are ways, but work and diligence and fairness are required.

if tenure disappears, it might be easier to get rid of the worst teachers, but you might also lose some of the best teachers, those bright creative folks who want to serve and enjoy the protection of being a TENURED civil servant. Without tenure, you might lose some of the very best ones.

My two children experienced some fabulous teachers and some dreadful teachers. Administrators not being wise enough or hard working enough or having the best interests of the child as their primary motivation were as much of a problem as any particular teacher.

Jul. 28 2014 06:25 PM

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