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.”

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”

D.C.

What you should know about the White House’s proposal to merge the education department into a new agency

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

The White House is proposing the federal education department merge with the labor department to form the Department of Education and the Workforce, officials announced Thursday.

It’s an eye-catching plan, given how relatively rare changes to the Cabinet are and the current prominence of Betsy DeVos, the current head of the education department who has proven deeply unpopular with educators since her confirmation hearings last year. Education Week first reported the proposed merger on Wednesday.

Here’s what we know so far about what’s going on and why it matters.

The news

The Trump administration announced a big-picture government reorganization Thursday, and the education-labor merger is one part of that.

The new department will have four main sub-agencies: K-12; higher education and workforce development; enforcement; and research, evaluation and administration.

It comes after DeVos proposed acquiring programs from the labor department that have to do with educational programs for unemployed adult workers, reintegrating ex-prisoners, and “out-of-school” youth, according to the New York Times.

The two departments already work together on some adult education and vocational training programs, according to the the Wall Street Journal. In an interview with the Associated Press, director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney said that there are currently 40 different job training programs spread over 16 agencies. This merger would be one attempt to change that.

DeVos said she supports the plan.

“This proposal will make the federal government more responsive to the full range of needs faced by American students, workers, and schools. I urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this proposal a reality,” DeVos said in a statement.

The implications for K-12 education

Today, the department distributes K-12 education money and enforces civil rights laws. It’s small for a federal agency, at 3,900 employees. On a symbolic level, a merged department would be de-emphasizing education.

The existing set of offices overseeing K-12 education would move into the new agency, according to the document, which says those offices will be “improved” but not how.

The education department’s Office of Civil Rights will become a part of the new department’s “enforcement” sub-agency.

The plan doesn’t mention any cuts to the agency or its offices, though Secretary DeVos has proposed cuts in the past.

Why this might not happen

The proposal would require congressional approval, which will likely be a difficult battle. Past attempts to eliminate the Department of Education in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t gain any traction, and both lawmakers and unions have expressed skepticism toward the new plan.

Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate labor and education committee, quickly put out a statement criticizing the plan.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected President Trump’s proposals to drastically gut investments in education, health care, and workers — and he should expect the same result for this latest attempt to make government work worse for the people it serves,” she said