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

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.