Newsroom

What does California’s teacher tenure ruling mean for New York? Depends whom you ask.

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

New York’s teachers unions are hailing a decision Monday by California’s top court to uphold that state’s teacher tenure laws, saying it bolsters their case against a legal challenge to New York’s teacher protections.

While the tenure laws differ in each state, the lawsuits targeting them rely on similar logic, said Richard Casagrande, general counsel for the New York State teachers union, one of several parties asking an appeals court to throw out the suit.

“The basic theory is the same: that somehow giving a teacher certain job protections interferes with a child’s right to a sound, basic education,” he said, adding that he expected that argument to fail in New York as well.

But the New York plaintiffs said they did not believe the ruling would affect their case, since the suits used different arguments and targeted different laws. One of the forces behind the lawsuit, an advocacy group led by former news anchor Campbell Brown, added that the ruling makes its anti-tenure efforts “more important than ever.”

The Los Angeles lawsuit, known as Vergara v. California, claimed that teacher tenure and dismissal laws made incompetent teachers too hard to fire, and saddled needy students with the least effective educators.

In June 2014, a judge sided with the students who brought the suit and struck down those laws, but this year an appeals court overturned that decision. On Monday, the California Supreme Court decided 4-3 not to review the lower court’s ruling — a move that preserved the job protections and marked a major victory for the state’s teachers unions.

The Vergara suit’s initial victory inspired advocates in New York City, who filed similar lawsuits in July 2014.

The suits, which were eventually combined, made several claims: that New York teachers should have to wait longer than three years to earn tenure; that ineffective teachers are rarely fired because the process is so cumbersome; and that the state’s “last in, first out” law protects more senior teachers even when they are less effective than newer ones. The suits were brought by parents organized by Brown’s group, the Partnership for Educational Justice, and by Mona Davids, a public-school parent and president of the advocacy group New York City Parents Union.

After Vergara’s defeat on Monday, the group sent out a release saying the ruling “has no bearing on cases in other states,” and insisting that its legal claim is “entirely different” from the one that was rejected in California. (Brown’s group is also backing a similar lawsuit in Minnesota.)

Davids reiterated that point on Tuesday, saying that New York has a “completely different constitution and laws governing education here.”

But lawyers for the city and state teachers unions, which are defendants in the New York case along with the city and state education departments, said the other side was trying to have it both ways. They noted that the plaintiffs had cited the 2014 ruling in favor of Vergara in their legal filings.

“When they cite those cases for their benefit, they suffer when those cases are overturned,” said Adam Ross, the city teachers union’s general counsel. “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”

The New York defendants are now waiting to argue before an appeals court that the lawsuit should be tossed, after a Staten Island judge declined to dismiss the suit. They expect the court to set a date for oral arguments soon.

As the case has wound through court, state lawmakers have actually changed some of the disputed laws: They lengthened the period needed to earn tenure to four years, and altered the statewide teacher-evaluation system.

David Bloomfield, an education law and policy professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, said those changes show that the legislature — not the courts — is the proper place to debate teacher job protections. He added that the New York plaintiffs, like those in California, would have a hard time in court proving that the tenure laws violate students’ rights.

“In my opinion, there’s little legal viability to their claim,” he said. “But it’s politically potent.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.