Wright v. New York
In New York, students and their families have been calling for common-sense changes to lifetime teacher employment laws for years. They know that while fixing these laws won’t solve all the problems facing their schools, students won’t get the great teachers they deserve until schools can replace those who aren’t up to the job without facing years of court battles.
Unfortunately, politicians and union leaders in New York haven’t listened. Even newly passed education laws in the State continue many of the same policies that have failed students and their families for decades.
Partnership for Educational Justice is helping students and their parents take their fight to the courts, challenging the outdated laws that keep them from getting the great teachers and great schools they deserve. In 2014, nine brave families filed complaint with Supreme Court for the State of New York in Albany County specifically challenging the statutes that grant lifetime job protection to 99% of all teachers, mandate quality-blind teacher layoffs, and require overly expensive and lengthy bureaucratic processes to replace teachers who are ineffective or harmful.
Roadblocks in Schools
Unfortunately, a tangle of antiquated laws in New York grant teachers what amounts to lifetime job protection, meaning they are entitled to continue teaching even if they perform poorly year after year. While created with good intentions, these laws ignore the critical importance of teachers. In practice, the laws also make it all but impossible for schools to replace those who are not up to the job.
Here’s how it works.
After only a few years in the classroom, almost all teachers earn “tenure.” With tenure, teachers gain extensive job protections—so extensive, in fact, that schools have to navigate a nearly endless bureaucratic maze to replace even the worst performing teachers.
All told, it can take up to 18 months and cost taxpayers $250,000 to replace a single poorly-performing teacher. Principals must spend hours filling out paperwork and attending hearings.
In New York City, the largest school system in the state, a total of 61 teachers – averaging 6 out of the city’s 78,000 teachers per year, or 0.008% of the city’s teaching force – were formally replaced because of poor performance over an entire decade from 1997 to 2007. Next to the two-thirds of New York students who aren’t reading or doing math at grade level, it’s obvious that the numbers don’t add up.
Lack of Control
Teachers who failed to receive a satisfactory rating, missed entire weeks of work, or even physically abused students can remain in the classroom over the objections of their schools.
To make matters worse, New York’s antiquated laws make it illegal for schools to keep their best teachers when layoffs become necessary. The state requires a quality-blind approach to layoffs that considers only years of service - and completely ignores job performance. This means that during tough economic times, schools are forced to cut some of their best teachers even as they keep ineffective teachers who happen to have worked in the district longer.
The result is that schools are powerless to build strong teaching teams, and far too many students every year find themselves stuck in classrooms led by ineffective teachers. It’s a problem that affects families in every corner of the state, but the sad truth is that the students who need great teachers the most - those who grow up in low-income communities - are often the least likely to get them.
A great education starts with great teaching. Decades of research have proven that teachers have a greater impact on student learning than any other factor a school can control. In fact, even one year with a great teacher can transform students’ lives, giving them a better chance to graduate from college and earn a higher salary, and making them less likely to become teenage parents. The key to giving New York’s students the education they deserve is putting the best possible teachers in every classroom.
Partnership for Educational Justice is grateful to have the support and counsel of law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where a team of talented and mission-driven attorneys are donating their services pro bono to ensure all students in New York have access to the great teachers they deserve.