By Leslie Brody | The Wall Street Journal
“Seven families brought together by a new advocacy group filed their anticipated suit against New York state Monday, saying that tenure and seniority protections for teachers violate students’ rights to a sound basic education.
Members of Partnership for Educational Justice, founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, promoted their cause on the steps of City Hall shortly after filing suit in state Supreme Court in Albany.
A spokesman at the New York state Education Department declined to comment on the suit.
The suit, and a similar one filed in Staten Island earlier this month by the New York City Parents Union, follow a landmark June decision called Vergara v. California. The Los Angeles Superior Court judge in that case struck down California’s laws on tenure, dismissal and seniority, saying they disproportionately inflicted incompetent teachers on poor and minority students.
Karen E. Magee, president of New York State United Teachers union, called Monday’s suit a “politically motivated attack” by wealthy elitists against dedicated teachers.
She said that tenure enables teachers to speak freely against budget cuts and excessive standardized testing, and it is unfair to blame tenure for academic woes when poverty, violence and underfunding of schools are among the real root causes.
Unions say that tenure helps shield teachers from vindictive bosses, nepotism and unjust dismissals. Districts in New York state typically decide whether to grant tenure after three probationary years, and in some cases seek an extra probationary year.
Monday’s suit says three years isn’t enough to decide if a teacher deserves tenure, and the legal proceedings to remove teachers are so complex, time-consuming and expensive that few bad teachers are fired. New York City Department of Education data show that in the past two school years, 23 teachers were terminated for incompetence and 17 for misconduct.
The suit says “last-in-first-out” layoff rules are misguided because they remove teachers without regard to talent. Unions say seniority protections bar districts from firing higher-paid veterans to save money.
One plaintiff, John Keoni Wright of East New York, Brooklyn, said his twin girls were both doing well until kindergarten. He said one daughter, whose teacher assigned homework daily and sent books home, is now an avid reader; the other, whose teacher was less diligent, now struggles. “If you took the job to become a teacher, you should do it,” Mr. Wright said.
The case hinges partly on research finding that teacher quality affects student success more than any other in-school factor. Jay Lefkowitz, a senior partner at Kirkland & Ellis who is litigating the case pro bono, said he expects to use details in teachers’ performance reviews to show how their weaknesses hurt students’ learning.
The suit’s opponents include Elzora Cleveland, a Manhattan public school parent and member of the Alliance for Quality Education, which advocates for fair school funding and gets some funding from teachers unions. She said she worried the lawsuit “is a morale-buster for teachers that are fantastic.”
More on Wright v. New York: http://www.edjustice.org/projects/new-york-lawsuit/