Legal Battle

Legal challenge to tenure clears hurdle, union vows to fight back

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Mona Davids (left) is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging New York's job-protection laws for teachers.

The battle against teacher tenure in New York City took one step forward on Thursday after a Staten Island judge allowed opponents’ challenge to the city’s workplace protections for educators to proceed.

The judge denied motions filed by the city, state and the teachers unions to dismiss a lawsuit challenging labor protections afforded to public school teachers, including tenure. If legal challenges to the city’s tenure policies are eventually successful, it could have major implications for tenure policies around the country.

The decision was hailed by the plaintiffs and by television journalist-turned education activist Campbell Brown, who has supported the legal challenge.

“This ruling is a major victory for New Yorkers, especially for parents and students,” Brown said in a statement.

The suit, Davids v. New York, asserts that New York’s teacher tenure review process is too short and should be lengthened from three years to five years; that the system of organizing teacher layoffs but the principle of “last in, first out” should be abandoned; and that the dismissal process for weak teachers should be streamlined. The workplace protections given to teachers, the plaintiffs contend, shield incompetent teachers from being fired and degrade the quality of education to many of the state’s students.

But teachers unions, along with officials from the city and state departments of education, challenged whether the group of parents bringing the suit had standing to file the legal action, and whether the courts, rather than the state legislature, should decide which workplace protections should be granted to teachers.

Judge Philip Minardo said the plaintiffs’ arguments around teacher tenure were strong enough to merit moving toward trial, and that the courts were the proper venue for review of state education policy.

The state teachers union called Thursday’s decision disappointing, but not unexpected, and said it plans to appeal Minardo’s decision.

“NYSUT anticipates taking this meritless attack on fairness and due process to the appellate division immediately,” the union said in a statement.

If an appeal is filed, it would further delay a trial.

In his January budget proposal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked for concessions that mirrored some of the changes plaintiffs in the lawsuit have been demanding. In exchange for additional funding for public schools, Cuomo asked the legislature to lengthen the time a teacher works before earning tenure from three to five years and expedite the teacher discipline process.

But Cuomo’s policy push offered little solace to named plaintiff and vice president of the New York City Parents Union Sam Pirozzolo.

“The governor may be committed to reform but he has to negotiate with the legislators and the unions and the lobbyist. He has obstacles,” Pirozzolo said.

Lawmakers in Albany pushed back against Cuomo’s proposals this week. The Assembly proposed a budget with $830 million in additional school funding, but without Cuomo’s concessions.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.