In the wake of a historic ruling against California’s teacher tenure laws, an education advocacy group founded by former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown is challenging similar rules in New York State.
The plaintiffs, seven families from Rochester and New York City, say their children have suffered a violation of their constitutional right to a “sound, basic education” thanks to tenure, seniority and dismissal laws that unduly protect incompetent teachers.
The New York state constitution does not explicitly recognize the right to a “sound, basic education.” However, in Levittown v. Nyquist (1982), the New York Court of Appeals interpreted Article XI to guarantee such a right. It later affirmed its conclusion in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State (2003).
“There’s no reason why my kids should not be reading on grade level. The law should be changed,” one mother involved with the case, Nina Doster, told the New York Daily News. “Every child should be subject to the best education and teaching in every classroom.”
The lawsuit was filed on Monday by the Partnership for Educational Justice, an education reform group founded by Brown—a former journalist known for her “no bias, no bull” persona.
“I’m a mom, and my view of public education begins and ends with the fundamental question: Is this good for children?” Brown told the Washington Post. “In a situation where it’s the child or the adult, I’m going with the child. … Tenure is permanent lifetime employment. There’s no reason why anyone’s job should become untouchable for the rest of their life.”
The PEJ suit is the second challenge to New York teacher tenure laws in the aftermath of June’s ruling in Vergara v. California. Earlier this month, the New York City Parents Union filed a lawsuit in New York Supreme Court, forwarding similar claims and complaints.
Adding to the explosive debate is new analysis from the Wall Street Journal showing that, of 826 disciplinary cases brought against New York City teachers in the past two years, only 496 have been resolved—and of those cases, only 40 ended in termination. The implications of the data are disputed by union leaders.
So, too, is the basis for recent lawsuits.
In an op-ed for the Albany Times Union, Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, slammed the “copycat lawsuits” brought by “pseudo-experts” like Campbell Brown that, “like the case against tenure in California,” are “without merit.”
“Picture what would happen if teachers—perhaps your child’s teacher—could be fired at will or face career jeopardy for politically motivated reasons,” she wrote. “Instead, teachers are able to join parents in denouncing excessive standardized testing. They stand up at board meetings and oppose budget cuts that hurt students. And, in communities where rising property taxes are triggering loud opposition, they don’t have to worry that their school board will simply lay off the most expensive teachers—even if they happen to be the best and most experienced—to save money.”
Some observers doubt the efficacy of a legal challenge.
“There are at least half a dozen strong reasons why we may not have as highly qualified a teacher force as we might like,” Michael Rebell, professor at the Columbia University Teachers College, told the Chronicle. While acknowledging the need to improve the tenure system, Rebell said it was a small factor that “certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a constitutional violation.”
Others, like Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, question whether the courts should resolve these questions.
“The intention here is entirely admirable,” said Hess. “I don’t think the results are likely to turn out in a way that’s going to actually promote reform.”
Nicandro Iannacci is a web strategist at the National Constitution Center.
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