Parents Challenge Teacher Tenure in NY

     ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) - Tenure provisions in New York education law violate the state constitution's guarantee of a "sound, basic education" for all children, seven parents claim in court.
     The lawsuit filed Monday in Albany County Supreme Court challenges 10 sections of education law that the parents say "make it nearly impossible to dismiss and discipline teachers with a proven track record of ineffectiveness or misconduct."
     Lead plaintiff John Keoni Wright sued New York State; the Regents of the University of the State of New York, an executive-level department that sets education policy; Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch; and state Education Commissioner John King.
     Five of the seven parents are from the New York City area and two are from Rochester. They sued on behalf of themselves and their children.
     Wright claims the importance of good teachers is illustrated by his twin daughters, Kaylah and Kyler, who attend a public school in Brooklyn. While they share nearly everything in common, one twin is struggling to catch up to the other academically after spending a year with an ineffective teacher, Wright says.
     "The gulf between Kaylah's and Kyler's learning illustrates what is a matter of common sense. An ineffective teacher can leave a student ill-equipped to advance, or even to stay apace of those alike in all respects except the quality of their teacher," Wright says.
     The complaint divides the 10 challenged sections of education law into three groups: "permanent employment statutes," "disciplinary statutes" and "LIFO statutes," an acronym for "last in, first out," in reference to the law's seniority provisions.
     Either together or by themselves, the statutes "confer permanent employment, prevent the removal of ineffective teachers, and result in layoffs of effective teachers in favor of less-effective, more senior teachers," the parents claim.
     The complaint classes as "permanent employment statutes" the procedures for granting tenure, which new teachers typically receive after a three-year probationary period.
     Few teachers are denied tenure, the parents say, even though a so-called annual professional performance review was added in 2012 to aid in teacher evaluations. The APPRs, as they are called, use results on state tests, classroom observation and other measures to assign teachers numerical scores that equate to "highly effective," "effective," "developing" and "ineffective."
     But "teachers are not rated ineffective even when their students consistently fail state exams," the parents say, citing statistics that show that while 91.5 percent of teachers outside New York City were rated "highly effective" or "effective" in 2012, just 31 percent of students taking state standardized tests in English and math that year met proficiency standards.
     "These discrepancies indicate that the APPR ratings operate as a rubber stamp for tenure and are not a meaningful check within the tenure process," according to the complaint.
     The parents say the "disciplinary statutes" keep low-rated teachers in schools by making it "prohibitively expensive, time-consuming and effectively impossible to dismiss an ineffective teacher who has already received tenure."
     Education law lists specific circumstances under which tenure can be revoked - conduct unbecoming, incompetency, physical or mental disability, neglect of duty - but a disciplinary proceeding must be held first and such hearings "are rarely initiated," according to the parents.
     "Principals and administrators would be more likely to use the 3020-a process to discipline or dismiss a teacher if it was less time-consuming and more effective," the parents say. The 3020-a process is a section of the education code dealing with disciplinary hearings.
     They say the "LIFO statutes" require that the last teachers hired be the first fired when a school district must reduce its instructor ranks.
     "New York is one of only 10 states to conduct layoffs on the basis of seniority alone, irrespective of a teacher's performance, effectiveness or quality," the parents say.
     They contend that without LIFO, "school administrators conducting layoffs would consider teacher performance, a higher number of effective teachers would be retained, and fewer children would suffer the loss of an effective teacher."
     The parents ask the court to find that the 10 provisions of education law violate the state constitution, and to block enforcement through preliminary and permanent injunctions.
     The plaintiffs, who also seek court costs and attorneys' fees, are represented by Jay Lefkowitz of Kirkland & Ellis in Manhattan.
     The New York Daily News reported that former CNN journalist Campbell Brown and a reform group she founded, Partnership for Educational Justice, are behind the complaint.
     New York State United Teachers, a federation of more than 1,200 local unions representing educators, called the lawsuit "a politically motivated attack against every dedicated teacher in New York State."
     NYSUT, headquartered near Albany, expressed confidence the court would find the complaint lacked merit.
     "We welcome the opportunity to expose the many lies and misrepresentations about tenure laws and establish, once and for all, the plain truth: Tenure is an absolutely necessary safeguard for teachers, for students and for quality public schools," NYSUT President Karen Magee said in a statement.
     It's the second lawsuit this month in New York challenging teacher tenure. In early July, a class action was filed in Richmond County Supreme Court, Staten Island, claiming teacher tenure discriminates against poor and minority children.
     The lawsuits follow a June ruling in Los Angeles Superior Court that found teacher tenure violates the equal protection provision of the California Constitution.