City parents plan to join lawsuit against teacher job protections as union vows to fight

A lawsuit designed to challenge state laws governing how teachers are hired, fired and laid off is growing out of New York City.

It’s not just the midtown law firm that’s offering free legal expertise, or the new, city-based advocacy group created to support the effort to weaken the state’s teacher job protection laws. Four of the six students whose families have agreed to join the case also go to school in the city, according to lawyers involved in the case.

Some of the parents are seasoned advocates like Keoni Wright, an East New York father of five who’s spoken at rallies and penned an op-ed in the Daily News pushing for tougher teacher evaluations. Wright’s twin girls had different kindergarten teachers at P.S. 158, which he says resulted in the two developing reading skills at different paces.

Two other New York City parents who have agreed to join the suit are Ginet Borrero and Raymond Diaz, Sr., who live with their three children in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. The lawyers wouldn’t release the names of other parents who plan to join the case, but the other two expected plaintiffs are from Buffalo and Rochester, respectively.

The planned legal effort, which is being supported by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown and was announced Tuesday, looks to imitate the challenge brought in a Los Angeles Superior Court. The judge in that case, Vergara v. California, ruled that the state’s teacher tenure laws disproportionately left poor and minority students with lower-quality teachers.

At the heart of the lawsuit in New York will be the question of whether laws providing job protections to teachers prevent schools from being able to remove ineffective teachers and, as a result, harm a student’s constitutional right to a “sound, basic education.”

But New York is not California, and officials say differences in New York’s laws will make it much harder to prove that point.

New York’s tenure law requires teachers to be reviewed for three years before becoming eligible for tenure, not two, as in California. And New York’s new teacher evaluation law is intended to identify ineffective tenured teachers and allow principals to quickly fire them without facing long and costly appeal hearings—though 92 percent of teachers statewide received “effective” or “highly effective” ratings last year.

“We will vigorously and aggressively defend the basic due process that teachers deserve,” said Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers.

In New York City, the percentage of eligible teachers who received tenure has also declined steeply in recent years, as the Bloomberg administration delayed many teachers’ tenure decisions in an effort to make the protection less automatic.

“The methodology for helping someone out of the profession who does not belong in the profession is also better than it’s ever been,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday. “So I think we’re on the right track, and I don’t think we need a lawsuit muddying the situation.”

State education officials, who have faced a year of fierce public opposition to the state’s education policies, were quieter on Tuesday, unwilling to wade into a sensitive debate on the final day of the year’s last Board of Regents meeting.

For his part, State Education Commissioner John King said he agreed with the Vergara decision, but said that its goals are being accomplished in part by the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

“Certainly, the Vergara decision in California reflected the notion that students’ civil rights are best vindicated when they have access to excellent teaching,” King said.

Some Regents declined to comment on the case. Kathleen Cashin, a former Brooklyn superintendent and union supporter, found a middle ground. Teachers still deserve due process rights, Cashin said, but it takes too long to decide if a tenured teacher should be fired—one of the points that lawyers representing the student plaintiffs plan to make.

Brown said that their case will challenge the argument that New York’s teacher evaluation law is an effective tool for ushering ineffective teachers out of the classroom. A detailed breakdown of how teachers were evaluated last year has been delayed for months, and Brown said that data will become evidence.

“You can’t just tweak and work around the edges if you’re going after the heart of the problem,” Brown said. “You have to challenge the underlying law itself.”