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Teacher Dismissal on Trial: Your Primer to the New York Challenge

Today marks the first major hearing in a combined challenge to New York's state's current rules for teacher tenure, dismissal, and layoffs. The plaintiffs and respondents will be meeting in a Staten Island courthouse to make their cases about whether the lawsuit should proceed. 

The lawsuit has many parallels to Vergara v. California, in which a judge ruled that the confluence of various teacher-protection laws were harming low-income and minority students. (The California ruling hasn't taken effect yet because an appeal is still cranking through the courts.) Similarly, the New York parents are challenging the laws under the state constitution, alleging that the laws violate its guarantees of a "sound, basic" education to all students.

Prior education cases focused on this section of the constitution have focused on funding and resources, not on the issue of effective teaching. 

There are also some key differences from the California challenge to keep in mind. For one, it does not hinge on a disparate-impact claim the way the Vergara case did.

Read on for all the details.

Weren't there two lawsuits filed in New York? Originally Davids v. New York and Wright v. New York were filed in separate courts, but because they were so similar, they were combined under the Davids name. There are a few differences between what the two plaintiffs' groups are arguing. (For instance, the Davids plaintiffs are taking aim at just dismissal and layoff policies, while the Wright plaintiffs are tackling those two, plus the way tenure is granted.) The Davids case is headed by Mona Davids, a parent activist, while the Wright lawsuit was brought by the Partnership for Educational Justice, a nonprofit headed by former television anchor Campbell Brown. (Oddly enough, there appears to be bad blood between these two groups, and it's unclear how closely they'll be working together.)

So what's today's hearing all about?  This is a hearing on the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit. (The motion is also supported by New York State United Teachers, which is intervening in support of the state.) The plaintiffs' attorneys will argue that the case's constitutional claim and remedies sought are appropriate given the harm it alleges. Adjudicating the actual merits of the lawsuit won't happen until and unless the plaintiffs are successful.

The defendants, meanwhile, will argue that these issues are better handled by the legislature, and that the lawsuit therefore lacks standing and should be tossed.

If the case proceeds to the trial stage, discovery will take place, and that's when the sides' substantive arguments will firm up.

Didn't New York revamp its evaluation and due process rules? Yes, it did, in 2010 and 2012, in part by linking the two more closely and putting in incentives for arbitrators to speed cases. But these changes are so new that it's hard to know to what extent they are reducing the due process timeframe or producing different outcomes than they did a decade ago. (One complicating factor is that teacher discipline and dismissal follow the same process in New York, so charges against a teacher often results in fines or penalties rather than firing.)  

If Davids v. New York goes to trial, then the time frame for dismissal isn't the only thing at issue. Another area of concern has been the standard for dismissal. According to one analysis, that standard has been quite high, with teachers being returned to classrooms despite serious infractions. 

Unions and the state are expected to argue that poverty and funding are more important determinants of student success than teacher effectiveness. They'll also argue that teachers need protection from arbitrary and unfair dismissal.

What's with all the high-pitched media back and forth?  This case is shaping up in the mainstream media as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten v. Campbell Brown, who heads the Partnership for Educational Justice. (This New York magazine story, which calls Brown Weingarten's "sworn enemy," is a perfect example.) If, like me, you find this type of framing distracting and unhelpful, too bad. As we saw with Vergara, both "sides" have an incentive to try to promote these narratives, with defendants painting the plaintiffs as puppets of "corporate reformers," and the plaintiffs portraying the defendents as protectors of a broken system favoring employment security over teaching, because they're a lot sexier than the tedious details of due process.

Don't misunderstand me: It's obviously important to underscore that there are deep-seated interests at work here—both teachers' unions and deep-pocketed philanthropies and advocacy groups. But the actual trial is likely to hinge on more mundane stuff: econometric research on teacher quality of the sort that was debated in Vergara, and on reams of new data and information on due process and teacher tenure in New York.

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