New York Enters 2015 Battling Over Tenure, Funding, Evaluations

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A Staten Island courtroom this week will see lawyers for seven parties receive a hearing on efforts to dismiss litigation seeking to overturn New York City’s teacher tenure and seniority laws.

Two plaintiff groups say the law violates New York students’ right “to a sound basic education by making it too costly and time-consuming to fire incompetent or abusive teachers.”  They are also against the last-in, first-out layoffs that come with budget cuts, because in the process, children lose talented, new instructors.

The Wall Street Journal’s Leslie Brody writes that the defendants, which are New York City and the state, along with their education departments, say the courts are not the proper venue to settle this dispute. Instead, plaintiffs should take their objections to legislators.

The battle comes on the heels of the decision of a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who struck down California’s tenure and seniority laws. The basis of this judgement was that the laws allowed bad teachers to remain in poor and minority students’ classrooms. The ruling, however,  has been appealed by state officials.

One of the upcoming suits has been given donations from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and Walton Family Foundation, two charitable groups that have advocated for improved teacher quality. The donations have gone to the Partnership for Educational Justice, the group founded by Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor.

Two unions, the United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers will be intervenors on the side of the city and state, and a lawyer for the School Administrators Association of New York State represent two principals who want tenure to remain in place, since it allows them to hire and keep teachers they believe are quality instructors without having to struggle with political interference. Teachers unions say that tenure does not guarantee a job for life, but does guarantee due process and protects teachers from vengeful or arbitrary firings.

A “Moral Monday” rally at the state capitol on Monday in Albany, New York, led by Rev. William Barber, included public school advocates, teacher unions representatives, and Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers). Rev. Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, addressed the crowd and pleaded for the state to close the educational gap by providing equitable school funding. Kyle Hughes, reporting for NYSNYS News, states that Gov. Cuomo has been at odds with teachers over failing schools, teacher tenure abuses, and the “monopoly” held by public schools. Barber sees the problems differently. He pointed to a 2014 report that described New York as having the most segregated school system in the US.

Governor Cuomo is pushing for a more rigorous teacher evaluation system and will probably have Republican support of the plan. The governor says the teacher evaluation process needs an overhaul based on the number of teachers who earn high scores. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) thinks the governor is wrong.

“Teaching and public education—those are noble professions,” she said. “If we want to emulate other places where students excel, we should look at places like Finland where, in fact, they honor teachers. … They don’t use test scores to measure students or teachers in the way we do here. I always thought that the teacher evaluation proposals were excessive and not tied to an appropriate measure. Teachers should be evaluated on a range of things. Upping the number of points that are tied to student scores is wrong.”

Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch and the state education department agree with Cuomo. Tisch wrote the governor a 20-page letter in which she gave detailed policy proposals of what rigorous teacher evaluations might look like. Still, according to senate education committee chair John Flanagan of Long Island, many questions remain.  How will the evaluations affect tenure? Should there be a probationary period? Which proposals should be used and which are not viable?

Meanwhile, Carl Korn, a spokesman for the New York State United Teachers, says school funding should be lawmakers’ priority for this session.