As students and teachers head back into the classroom, some parents and union officials are heading into the courtroom.
At issue are teacher tenure and other job protections for educators. The plaintiffs in two lawsuits filed against the state this summer — including two parents from Queens suing on behalf of their children — contend that tenure and the lengthy process for removing teachers are so onerous that many bad educators remain in the system, denying children their constitutional right to a sound basic education.
The two cases come on the heels of a similar suit filed in California that resulted in a June ruling declaring teacher job protections there to be unconstitutional.
The first suit here, Mymoena Davids et. al. v. The State of New York et. al., was filed June 30 by the parents and guardians of 10 students on Staten Island with the support of a group called the NYC Parents Union. The second, John Keoni Wright et. al. v. State of New York et. al., was filed July 28 by the parents of seven students, including Nina Doster, whose children, Patience and King McFarlane, attend PS 140 in Jamaica; and Tauana Goins, whose daughter, Tanai, who attends PS 106 in Rockaway. That case is supported by a group called the Partnership for Educational Justice.
The right to a “sound basic education” is enshrined in the state constititution.
The people who filed suit in both cases make similar arguments. In the NYC Parents Union case, the plaintiffs argue that while they are not “against tenure per se” and recognize that teachers have constitutionally protected due process rights, the legal processes in place for discipline and removal are “glaringly inadequate” and effectively deprive “an exceedingly worrisome number of children” of their rights.
And they claim they’ve been left with nowhere to turn but the court system.
“Public and Elected Officials in New York have not listened, in large part because the power and money behind the teachers’ union exerts an inordinate amount of influence on politicians and their campaign contributions — effectively leaving parents and administrators without a seat at the table,” one point in the suit reads. “The latest example is New York City’s new contract with its teachers’ union, which will continue many of the same unconstitutional policies that have failed students and their families for decades.”
That union, the United Federation of Teachers, says the plaintiffs’ claims are false and is seeking to intervene as a defendant in the NYC Parents Union case. The UFT has not yet decided if it also will seek such “intervenor-defendant” status in the Partnership for Educational Justice suit, a union spokeswoman said, and the two cases may be combined into one anyway.
In its motion to intervene, filed July 21, UFT President Michael Mulgrew says the union acts not only to serve its members and promote the democratic administration of schools but also to “advocate for students to help make every public school a place where parents want to send their children and where educators want to work.”
Mulgrew defends teachers’ job protections by noting that new teachers serve a probationary period, that tenure is not absolute and that seniority-based layoffs — another provision the plaintiffs claim allows bad teachers to remain in place — prevent them from being arbitrarily fired due to disagreements with administrators or political influences.
“Once achieving ‘tenure,’ a teacher is not guaranteed a job for life, as is the popular misconception,” Mulgrew says in the motion. “Rather, as with many other professions in both the public and private spheres, such teachers may only be removed from their positions for just cause and following a due process hearing.”
That lets them do their jobs properly without fear of repercussion, he said, “thereby encouraging well-educated professionals to enter and remain in the teaching profession as well as creating the stability in school staffs necessary for the provision of a quality education.”
Summing up the motion, Mulgrew says the UFT is “uniquely positioned” to give the court insight on how the laws the suit opposes are implemented every day, and therefore it should be granted intervenor-defendant status.
One retired UFT member who found the job protections vital is City Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), chairman of the Education Committee. Asked for a statement on the issue, Dromm made clear that he supports tenure and has personal reason for doing so.
“Tenure is vitally important to making sure we have an effective school system that serves our children well,” Dromm said in an email. “Tenure is designed to protect teachers from arbitrary and baseless accusations. In 1992, when I came out as an openly gay teacher at PS 199Q in Sunnyside, there were many calls from School District 24 board members for my removal. Fortunately, I had tenure and that is the only reason why I can stand before you today as the chairperson of the Council’s Education Committee. Tenure simply protects a teacher’s due process rights and everyone deserves to be treated fairly.
“The lawsuit is frivolous and based on the incorrect assumption that teachers can’t be fired. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Both sides in the lawsuits have produced statistical evidence backing their respective claims — that job protections make it too difficult to remove problem teachers or, as Dromm says, that they protect their due process rights.
The plaintiffs in the NYC Parents Union case say that from 2004 to 2008, the average time it took to resolve disciplinary cases against teachers — known as 3020-A proceedings after the section of state law that applies — was 502 days. Proceedings for incompetency took 830 days on average and cost $313,000 per teacher, using statistics from 1995 to 2006, they said.
The UFT, on the other hand, says in an informational packet that of the 359 misconduct cases brought against teachers in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, 196 resulted in fines, while 76 resulted in the teacher resigning, retired or being fired. And it contends that records maintained by the New York State United Teachers, which UFT members are also a part of, show that the median length of 3020-A cases is 105 days.
How the two sides could present such vastly different statistics on the time frame for resolving 3020-A cases was not immediately clear.