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Is New York the next battleground over teacher tenure?

Just weeks after a landmark ruling in California struck the state's tenure laws, a group in New York plans on filing a similar challenge.
A teacher with his fifth grade students at Woodside Intermediate School 125 in the Queens borough of New York, March 27, 2014.
A teacher with his fifth grade students at Woodside Intermediate School 125 in the Queens borough of New York, March 27, 2014.

Emboldened by a landmark ruling in California that struck down teacher tenure laws, a group of families in New York has announced plans to challenge the state's tenure laws on the grounds that tenure keeps ineffective and dangerous teachers in the classroom.

The families, part of a newly formed group called Partnership for Educational Justice, plan to file the lawsuit in the coming weeks.

Teacher tenure, which essentially guarantees a teacher a job for life and due process in case of termination, has been a hot-button issue in education for years. But recently opponents of tenure, who argue that the laws do little more than prevent bad teachers from being fired, have gained ground.

“We want the best for our kids – and that starts with a great education and great teachers in the classroom,” Carla and John Williams, one of the six families involved in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Our daughter simply isn’t getting the instruction and learning she needs, and our school leaders and local elected officials aren’t taking steps to support effective teachers. The reality is that this lawsuit is a last resort.”

These latest efforts to chip away at tenure laws could signal a seismic shift in the way American teachers are being hired and fired. New York and California have the two largest public school systems in the country, and among the most powerful teachers unions. The unions have fought to keep strong tenure laws in place as protections for their members, which across the country number in the millions.

In the California case, a federal judge ruled that tenure violated the rights of low-income and minority students who are disproportionately shackled to poor, inexperienced teachers. The success of the argument citing tenure as a civil rights issue was groundbreaking.

The plaintiffs in the California case Vergara vs. California argued that the state’s poor minority children in particular are subject to second-class instruction. Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu in his ruling said the state’s tenure laws obstruct students’ fundamental right to equality in public education.

“Evidence has been elicited in this trial of the specific effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students,” Treu wrote, noting that up to 3% of the state’s teachers could fall under that label. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

According to Partnership for Educational Justice, the New York lawsuit will charge that the state’s complicated teacher tenure and removal process is archaic and costly and violates the state constitution’s “guarantee of a sound basic education to all students.”

The success of the plaintiffs in the Vergara case has bolstered opponents of tenure.

The New York group, as in the Vergara case, plans to challenge so-called Last in, First out mandates that often protect the most senior teachers from layoffs regardless of their effectiveness in the classroom. Also like Vergara, the Partnership for Educational Justice plans on challenging the number of years teachers in the classroom need before they are eligible for tenure. In California, a teacher can receive tenure after just two years on the job – one of only five states that require two years or less. In New York, teachers are typically eligible for tenure after three years of good service.

Critics say two and three years is not enough time to gauge a teacher's effectiveness.

Carl Korn, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers union, told The Journal News that challenging tenure is a knock, among other things, against a teacher’s right to a fair disciplinary hearing, similar to those granted other public employees like police officers and firefighters.

"Tenure laws protect students and good teaching by ensuring that educators aren't fired for speaking out on behalf of their students or because they engage their students in controversial topics," Korn said. "Does New York really want its teachers to have to remain silent on controversial issues because their employment would depend on the whim of an administrator or school board?"

These latest fights have been bankrolled at least in part by wealthy benefactors. In California, the lawsuits were financed by David Welch, a wealthy Silicon Valley technology magnate and an education reform group he founded. Welch has said that he is willing to fund similar lawsuits across the country. Partnership for Educational Justice, the fledgling New York group, was founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown.

“Year after year our politicians have failed to act on common sense reforms. These families feel they have no choice but to ask the courts to step in,” said Brown. “All of New York's children deserve access to a great education and these families will not wait another day.”

Brown provided the seed funding for the group along with "a bipartisan group of donors also supporting the effort to provide every child access to a quality teacher and education," according to a statement.