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Lawsuit to Overturn New York's Teacher-Tenure Laws Heads to Trial

A case challenging New York's teacher-tenure laws will move to trial despite the union's attempts to dismiss it, an appellate court ruled yesterday.

The Davids-Wright lawsuit was first filed as two cases in separate courts in 2014 and then merged because they were so similar. The first case was brought by parent activist Mona Davids, who claimed that teacher dismissal and layoff policies end up sticking poor students of color with the worst teachers. Soon after, another lawsuit brought by Partnership for Educational Justice, a nonprofit headed by former TV anchor Campbell Brown, took aim at the same claims as Davids while also challenging the way tenure is granted.

Together the plaintiffs argue, among other points, that teacher job protections amount to permanent employment, even for ineffective teachers who are unable to provide students a "sound basic education" as promised in the state's constitution. What's more, they claim attempts to dismiss poorly performing teachers are met by dozens of hurdles including investigations, hearings, and administrative appeals. The result: an overly expensive, time-consuming process that rarely ends in the dismissal of an ineffective teacher.

The defendants, including New York City's United Federation of Teachers, argued the lawsuit should be dismissed in light of changes made to teacher job protections in 2015. The changes include procedures for speeding up firing decisions, and an increase in the time it takes teachers to earn tenure from three years to four. 

United Federation of Teachers general counsel Adam Ross expressed disappointment over the decision. "Judges around the nation have dismissed claims similar to those filed in the Davids-Wright case, and we are confident as the case goes forward that New York courts will ultimately recognize the importance to students and schools of reasonable due process for teachers," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the Davids-Wright case, Jay Lefkowitz, underscored the reasons parents took up the case in the first place and expressed hope that they would win in the end. "New York's constitution guarantees all children in the state a sound basic education, and the current teacher employment statutes are simply failing our children by keeping ineffective teachers in our public schools," he said in a statement. "This decision will finally allow us to get the evidence from the State that will vindicate the rights of parents and children across the state."

A similar case challenging teacher-tenure rules in California, Vergara v. California, was denied a hearing in the state's supreme court in 2016, effectively ending the lawsuit. While the case solely concerned the Golden State's teacher-tenure laws, some of the most robust in the nation, it was widely seen as the forefront of a national movement to use the courts to bring down job protections that some education advocates contend, as the plaintiffs in the Davids-Wright case do, keep bad teachers in the classroom.

While Vergara and other cases attempting to quash teacher-tenure laws have proved unsuccessful, there have been some victories. Earlier this month, Colorado's supreme court ruled that teachers don't have a basic right to tenure, upholding a state law that allows districts to put teachers on unpaid leave without a hearing.  And last year a Minnesota case challenging tenure laws was revived after a judge dismissed it in 2016, ruling that such questions should be decided by the legislature and not the courts. The Minnesota lawsuit is also backed by Campbell Brown's nonprofit Partnership for Educational Justice.


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