state of tenure

City parents plan to join lawsuit against teacher job protections as union vows to fight

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Keoni Wright, right, one of the parents expected to file a lawsuit against job protections for teachers. Wright spoke at a StudentsFirstNY rally outside City Hall in 2012.

A lawsuit designed to challenge state laws governing how teachers are hired, fired and laid off is growing out of New York City.

It’s not just the midtown law firm that’s offering free legal expertise, or the new, city-based advocacy group created to support the effort to weaken the state’s teacher job protection laws. Four of the six students whose families have agreed to join the case also go to school in the city, according to lawyers involved in the case.

Some of the parents are seasoned advocates like Keoni Wright, an East New York father of five who’s spoken at rallies and penned an op-ed in the Daily News pushing for tougher teacher evaluations. Wright’s twin girls had different kindergarten teachers at P.S. 158, which he says resulted in the two developing reading skills at different paces.

Two other New York City parents who have agreed to join the suit are Ginet Borrero and Raymond Diaz, Sr., who live with their three children in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. The lawyers wouldn’t release the names of other parents who plan to join the case, but the other two expected plaintiffs are from Buffalo and Rochester, respectively.

The planned legal effort, which is being supported by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown and was announced Tuesday, looks to imitate the challenge brought in a Los Angeles Superior Court. The judge in that case, Vergara v. California, ruled that the state’s teacher tenure laws disproportionately left poor and minority students with lower-quality teachers.

At the heart of the lawsuit in New York will be the question of whether laws providing job protections to teachers prevent schools from being able to remove ineffective teachers and, as a result, harm a student’s constitutional right to a “sound, basic education.”

But New York is not California, and officials say differences in New York’s laws will make it much harder to prove that point.

New York’s tenure law requires teachers to be reviewed for three years before becoming eligible for tenure, not two, as in California. And New York’s new teacher evaluation law is intended to identify ineffective tenured teachers and allow principals to quickly fire them without facing long and costly appeal hearings—though 92 percent of teachers statewide received “effective” or “highly effective” ratings last year.

“We will vigorously and aggressively defend the basic due process that teachers deserve,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers.

In New York City, the percentage of eligible teachers who received tenure has also declined steeply in recent years, as the Bloomberg administration delayed many teachers’ tenure decisions in an effort to make the protection less automatic.

“The methodology for helping someone out of the profession who does not belong in the profession is also better than it’s ever been,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday. “So I think we’re on the right track, and I don’t think we need a lawsuit muddying the situation.”

State education officials, who have faced a year of fierce public opposition to the state’s education policies, were quieter on Tuesday, unwilling to wade into a sensitive debate on the final day of the year’s last Board of Regents meeting.

For his part, State Education Commissioner John King said he agreed with the Vergara decision, but said that its goals are being accomplished in part by the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

“Certainly, the Vergara decision in California reflected the notion that students’ civil rights are best vindicated when they have access to excellent teaching,” King said.

Some Regents declined to comment on the case. Kathleen Cashin, a former Brooklyn superintendent and union supporter, found a middle ground. Teachers still deserve due process rights, Cashin said, but it takes too long to decide if a tenured teacher should be fired—one of the points that lawyers representing the student plaintiffs plan to make.

Brown said that their case will challenge the argument that New York’s teacher evaluation law is an effective tool for ushering ineffective teachers out of the classroom. A detailed breakdown of how teachers were evaluated last year has been delayed for months, and Brown said that data will become evidence.

“You can’t just tweak and work around the edges if you’re going after the heart of the problem,” Brown said. “You have to challenge the underlying law itself.”


Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.

Colorado Vote 2018

Polis campaign releases education plan, including new promise about teacher raises

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Congressman Jared Polis, one of several Democrats running for governor, released an education plan for the state Wednesday that includes new details on tackling teacher shortages and better preparing high school students for work.

The Boulder Democrat wants to help school districts build affordable housing for teachers, increase teacher pay and make sure that “100 percent of Colorado’s school districts are able to offer dual and concurrent enrollment programs through an associate’s degree or professional certification, and work to boost enrollment in them.”

The education plan includes the congressman’s initial campaign promise to deliver free and universal preschool and kindergarten.

“Part of my frustration is that politicians have been talking about preschool and kindergarten for decades,” Polis said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “It’s time to stop talking … and actually do it.”

Big questions remain, however, about how Colorado would pay for Polis’s plans.

Free universal preschool and kindergarten would cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars the state does not have. Polis has acknowledged that voters will need to approve a tax increase to secure the funding necessary — and voters rejected Colorado’s last big statewide ask to fund education initiatives.

His additional promises, especially providing schools with more money to pay teachers, only adds to the price tag for his education plan. The campaign did not release any projections of how much his teacher pay raise proposal would cost.

“If a teacher can’t afford to live in the community they work in, that is not going to be an attractive profession,” he said. “We need to do a better job in Colorado making sure teachers are rewarded for their hard work.”

Other components to Polis’s plan includes providing student loan relief for teachers who commit to serving in high-need and rural areas, increasing teacher training and building and renovating more.

Polis is the latest Democrat to roll out an education platform.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston released more details earlier this week about his campaign promise for tuition-free community college and job training.

Johnston’s campaign estimates that the initiative would cost about $47 million annually. The campaign provided specifics on how the state would pay for it: by combining existing federal grants and state scholarships, revenue from online sales tax, and state workforce development funding. Savings from volunteer hours put in by tuition recipients also are factored in.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy released her education plan last month.

Like Polis, Kennedy is calling for teacher raises. She wants the state’s average salary to be closer to the national average. The former state treasurer also wants to expand preschool and job training for high school students. A key piece of Kennedy’s proposal to pay for her initiatives: reforming the state’s tax laws to generate more revenue.

Other Democrats running to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, include Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and businessman Noel Ginsburg.

The Republican field to replace Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is also crowded. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman announced earlier this month that she’s running. Other leading Republican candidates include former Congressman Tom Tancredo, state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, and businessmen Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell. George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, dropped out of the race to instead run for attorney general.