A new lawsuit filed in New York on Monday seeks to make the state’s labor laws for teachers follow the same course recently taken in California, where a judge ruled that overly generous protections for teachers unconstitutionally harmed students.
The lawsuit, Wright v. New York, was filed by seven parents whose children attend public schools in New York City as well as Rochester. The suit, which contains hundreds of pages of backing evidence documenting alleged shortfalls in New York public education, alleges that generous protections given to experienced teachers result in a violation of New York’s constitutional guarantee of a sound basic education.
The legal push is led by Campbell Brown, a former CNN news anchor who has become a major actor in education reform. Brown created the group Partnership for Educational Justice, which announced its intent to sue New York a month ago.
“This is not going to be easy and they are so incredibly brave to be taking this on,” Brown said of the parents participating in the suit during a press conference. At one point, she teared up from emotion.
The group’s legal work will be offered by Kirkland and Ellis, one of the nation’s top law firms.
While Brown says the lawsuit was in the works since 2013, it has a great many similarities with June’s Vergara v. California decision, in which a state judge ruled that California’s labor protections for teachers resulted in poor and minority students being disproportionately taught by ineffective teachers. This inequality, he ruled, violated California’s constitution.
The ruling was stayed pending an appeal that could overturn it, but its influence across the country has already been significant.
New York’s teacher laws have many similarities with the controversial California laws that were struck down. Like California, the state makes firing teachers an expensive, lengthy procedure that many school districts are reluctant to even engage in, leading to allegations that so-called “lemon” teachers are simply passed from school to school rather than being let go. The state also follows a “last hired, first fired” process in lay-offs that values seniority over measured effectiveness when it comes to making lay-offs.
Critics also argue that New York evaluates teachers for tenure offers after too short of a time period, before school districts can adequately determine if teachers are effective or not. However, New York’s tenure evaluation period is still significantly longer than California’s, where teachers were evaluated after just 18 months on the job. In New York, the default length is three years, with a frequently-exercised option to wait a fourth year before deciding on a tenure offer.
The New York State United Teachers, the state’s leading teachers union, was swift to condemn the suit.
“This is a politically motivated attack against every dedicated teacher in New York state. We are highly confident the courts will reject this attack as entirely without merit,” said NYSUT president Karen Magee in a statement. Magee focused in particular on the need to preserve tenure, which she said allowed teachers to be involved in public issues without fearing for their jobs.
“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,” she said.
Magee also attacked Brown for her ties with wealthy philanthropists who have funded her organization.
Brown told reporters that while New York is the first target, her group may try to organize lawsuits in several other states as well.
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