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New York's teacher tenure faces second challenge as Campbell Brown's group files suit

Carla Williams (left) is one of seven plaintiffs  suing the state over teacher tenure laws. The efforts are led by news-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown (right).
Carla Williams (left) is one of seven plaintiffs suing the state over teacher tenure laws. The efforts are led by news-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown (right).
Jessica Glazer

Soon after his twin daughters entered kindergarten, Keoni Wright started to see a difference in their academic growth. While Kaylah regularly had homework, Kyler did not—and as a result, Wright says, Kaylah is now entering second grade reading above grade level as Kyler struggles.

Wright blames an ineffective teacher, and he and six other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit today challenging New York state’s teacher job protection laws, which they say create obstacles to removing those educators. The case is the second legal challenge to teacher tenure in New York, and follows a similar case in California that found tenure laws in that state unconstitutional.

A mother and a plaintiff in the case, Carla Williams, spoke with Wright at a press conference on City Hall steps Monday morning.

“I am doing my part but some of Jada’s teachers have not,” Williams said about her daughter.

The complaint, whose filing was led by the news-anchor-turned-education-activist Campbell Brown, runs to 30 pages. It attacks the state’s job protections for teachers on a few fronts: it asserts that three years isn’t enough time to determine whether a teacher should receive tenure; takes issue with the lengthy disciplinary process required to dismiss teachers, opposes the “last in, first out” statute that privileges senior teachers during layoffs, and takes aim at the state’s teacher evaluation system.

The plaintiffs argue that those policies violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a “sound basic education” — a claim the city and state teachers unions have vigorously refuted.

“Parents know that attacking teachers is not the answer to the problems of New York’s public schools,” UFT president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement today. “We expect New York’s courts to reject the fact-challenged and legally questionable assertions in this case.”

Much of the filing consists of nearly 400 pages of studies that support the idea that teacher quality is the key to student learning, including research that has supported the use of value-added scores for teachers.

Some of the local data is less up to date. The complaint notes that 97 percent of tenure-eligible teachers in the city received the protections in 2007. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though, many more teachers had their probationary periods extended. Last year, 53 percent of eligible teachers received tenure, while 44 percent had their probationary periods extended for another year.

For Angeles Barragan, a mother who lives in the Norwood section of the Bronx and another plaintiff, motivation to sue began with her daughter’s notebook.

Each day, Barragan sent her daughter, Natalie, to kindergarten with a notebook that she checked at night, but she noticed that Natalie’s teacher didn’t assign homework. When Barragan brought this up to her, the teacher implied that homework wasn’t crucial in kindergarten.

Angeles Barragan’s daughter forgot a lot of what she learned in prekindergarten because of a bad teacher, she says.
Angeles Barragan’s daughter forgot a lot of what she learned in prekindergarten because of a bad teacher, she says.
Jessica Glazer

Supporters of the current job protections point to the state’s new teacher evaluation system as one way that ineffective teachers can be identified—and a key difference between New York and California. The first scores for city teachers under the new system aren’t yet in, though.

Of the suit’s claim that New York’s evaluation law isn’t an effective way to identify and terminate incompetent teachers, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said that was never its intention.

“I always thought the evaluation system was very simply about helping drive professional development,” Tisch said. “This was never playing ‘gotcha’ with teachers. We never thought we could fire our way out of this problem.”

Still, some of the issues raised by the lawyers are credible, Tisch said. “There’s probably a number of legislative fixes for what’s involved in the process for people who should not be teaching,” she said, including changes to the three-year probationary period for teachers.

In a statement, the state teachers union said that poverty, underfunding, violent crime, overcrowding, and concentrations of English language learners are among numerous factors beyond teacher quality that impact student learning. (Research has shown that teachers are the most important school-based factor in student achievement, but that external factors play a bigger overall role.)

“[Brown] and her wealthy supporters seem to think that if teachers could be fired for any reason at any time, student achievement in high-poverty schools would miraculously soar,” NYSUT, the state teacher union, said.

“Tenure means teachers can speak freely and strongly on matters of public concern,” the union added. “Teachers can partner with parents against inappropriate standardized testing and question Common Core precisely because they don’t have to fear reprisals for doing so.”

In the past, Mayor Bill de Blasio has defended teacher tenure as a way to recruit and retain effective teachers. A spokesman from the state said they could not comment on pending litigation.

At the press conference this morning, after three of the plaintiffs spoke, Campbell Brown stepped up to the podium and called for the parents to join her. As she briefly spoke, her voice trembled.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Brown said.

She said that her organization, Partnership for Educational Justice, plans to file similar lawsuits across the country.

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