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.”

Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.

Referendum Results

Election results: Newark voters stick with an elected school board, NJ voters approve $500 million for schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A voter casts his ballot in Newark's Central Ward on Tuesday.

Newark voters decided Tuesday that the power to choose school board members should remain in their hands, not the mayor’s.

In a referendum held during Tuesday’s midterm elections, voters overwhelmingly opted for an elected school board over one appointed by the mayor. Their decision comes less than a year after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district, putting the nine-member board back in charge of New Jersey’s largest school system and its nearly $1 billion budget.

Statewide, voters narrowly authorized the state to borrow $500 million to pay for the expansion of vocational programs, school security upgrades, and improvements to schools’ water infrastructure. The money for career training will only go to county-run schools and colleges — a boon to those schools, but a potential threat to the district if it leads more students to opt for vocational-technical schools over traditional high schools.

As a result of Newark’s school-board referendum, which was required by state law, voters will continue to elect board members and approve the district’s budget. That outcome was widely expected. The Newark Teachers Union and prominent politicians — including Mayor Ras Baraka, who championed the district’s return to local control — had all urged voters to stick with an elected board.

In a pre-election message posted on the city’s website, Baraka said that allowing the mayor to handpick board members would give him “enormous direct power over education in Newark.”

“I do not want that power,” he said. “I want the people to have that power.”

Also on Tuesday, New Jersey voters re-elected U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, over his Republican rival, Bob Hugin. The high-profile race, which flooded the airwaves with bitter attack ads, drew a large number of voters to the polls despite heavy rain throughout the day.

However, some Newark voters said they were surprised to find questions about school funding and board elections on the ballot when they arrived at their polling sites. Debora Walker, a poll worker at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark’s Central Ward, said she had not seen any ads or information about the two education-focused questions before Nov. 6.

“I didn’t hear anything about any question,” she said. “Just a lot of mudslinging.”

In February, the state put Newark’s school board back in charge of the district, ending 22 years of state control when the board had only advisory powers. Now, the board is once again responsible for selecting the superintendent and overseeing district spending, hiring, and policymaking.

When districts return to local control, state law mandates that voters be given the choice between an elected or mayor-appointed board. Proponents say that granting mayors control of schools forces them to prioritize education because it hitches their political fortunes to the fate of the school system.

But the vast majority of boards nationally and in New Jersey are elected, which most voters are reluctant to change. Newark’s board has been elected since 1982 — and many observers doubted that voters would trade it for an appointed board just as the city regained control of its schools.

“At this particular time, people have a heightened sense of, ‘No, we’re not letting anyone else be in charge,’” said Mary Bennet, a former Newark principal who led a group that advised the district on its return to local control. With an elected board, voters will know that “what they say counts — and people they elected, they can hold them accountable for how they sit up there and vote.”

The statewide ballot measure that voters approved allows the state to issue $500 million in bonds.

Of that amount, $100 million will go to districts to improve the quality of their schools’ drinking water. In 2016, Newark was forced to replace pipes and water fountains in dozens of schools after their water was found to contain high levels of lead. Because most of that remediation has already been completed, it’s unclear how much of the $100 million Newark would be eligible to receive.

Another $350 million is allocated for county vocational programs and school security upgrades, such as new alarm systems. The bond act does not say how that amount will be divided.

The county vocational-technical schools will use their share of the money to expand programs that let students study trades, such as manufacturing and medical technology, while also earning high-school diplomas. In 2017, about 10 percent of Newark students chose to attend one of Essex County’s four “vo-tech” schools over one of the city’s district or charter high schools.

While the bond act was being crafted, some critics noted that it does not set aside any money for the vocational programs that some district high schools offer. Vocational programs at traditional high schools are open to all students, whereas vo-tech schools screen applicants based on their grades, test scores, and other factors.

Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said the county schools desperately need more funding to meet the demand from students. Last year, the schools had nearly 17,000 more applicants than available seats.

“Enrollment has been growing,” she said, “and the vocational schools are turning away more students than they can admit.”

This story has been updated with results of the statewide bond referendum.