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Effort to Overturn New York’s Teacher Tenure Laws Wins Unanimous Appeals Court Victory

By David Cantor | March 28, 2018

Partnership for Educational Justice attorney Jay Lefkowitz speaks at a press conference at City Hall. (Photo credit: Naomi Nix)

A New York appellate court ruled unanimously Wednesday that a case brought by a group of parents arguing that teacher tenure laws and seniority-based job protections harm their children’s education should go forward.

The decision dealt the state Education Department, New York City, and New York teachers unions a third defeat in their years-long attempt to have the high-profile lawsuit dismissed.

In a six-page ruling upholding a lower court decision, the four-judge panel rejected arguments that the parents lacked standing to bring the complaint, which alleges that provisions of state education law relating to teacher discipline and dismissal saddle children with ineffective teachers, depriving them of their right to a “sound, basic education” under the New York State Constitution.

The case, Wright v. New York, was originally filed in 2014 by nine parents, aided by lawyers from the advocacy group Partnership for Educational Justice. The organization has pursued similar legal challenges in New Jersey and Minnesota. The New York City Parents Union, a student advocacy group founded in 2011 by Mona Davids, is also involved in the case.

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“Today’s decision from the New York appeals court is an incredible victory for students’ rights,” said Alissa Bernstein, the partnership’s executive director. “While the defendants have repeatedly tried to delay and dispose of this case, today’s decision affirms the fact that the brave parents and children who brought this suit deserve their day in court. The fight for educational justice will continue so that we can give our students the education they are guaranteed under the state constitution.”

Among the parent plaintiffs is Tauana Goins, whose daughter’s teacher at Public School 106 — dubbed the notorious “School of No” because it had no books, art, or gym classes — allegedly bullied the girl and called her “a loser.” The Queens mom said she tried unsuccessfully to have her daughter reassigned, but the child was given the same teacher for first, second and fifth grades.

“We’re not anti-teacher,” Goins told The 74 in 2015. “We just want effective teachers and we want tenure to be performanced-based.”

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The defendants, who include New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, argued the lawsuit should be tossed out, particularly after the state reformed teacher job protections in 2015 — including mandating a time frame under which school boards had to decide whether to fire teachers consistently rated as ineffective, and increasing from three years to four the length of the probationary period leading up to tenure.

“We are disappointed in this procedural decision by an intermediate court. Judges around the nation have dismissed claims similar to those filed in the Davids-Wright case, and we are confident as the case goes forward that New York courts will ultimately recognize the importance to students and schools of reasonable due process for teachers,” Adam Ross, the UFT’s general counsel, said in a statement.

Jay Lefkowitz, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, has said the revisions were minor and not enough to alter a system that leaves poor teachers in the classroom. State Supreme Court Justice Philip Minardo agreed in 2015, calling the changes “marginal” and “insufficient” as a reason for dismissal.

Lefkowitz said in a statement Wednesday that the plaintiffs were pleased the Appellate Court, Second Department affirmed Minardo’s decision, deciding “to allow this lawsuit to proceed and has once again rejected the effort by the state, the city, and the teachers unions to stop this lawsuit.”

New York’s constitution guarantees all children in the state a sound, basic education, and the current teacher employment statutes are simply failing our children by keeping ineffective teachers in our public schools,” said Lefkowitz, a senior partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “This decision will finally allow us to get the evidence from the state that will vindicate the rights of parents and children across the state.”

The plaintiffs intend to seek teacher personnel records to argue their case. Minardo had halted the discovery process while the case was before the Appellate Court. The defendants are expected to appeal to the full Appellate Court to review the panel’s unanimous ruling.

Disclosure: Campbell Brown founded the Partnership for Educational Justice. She co-founded The 74 and sits on its board of directors. She played no part in the reporting or editing of this story. Walton Family Foundation provides financial support to PEJ and The 74.

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