Campbell Brown

A new advocacy group is helping parents prepare a challenge to New York's teacher tenure and seniority laws, contending that they violate children's constitutional right to a sound basic education by keeping ineffective teachers in classrooms.

Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor who has been a critic of job protections for teachers, launched the group, Partnership for Educational Justice, in December. She said six students have agreed to serve as plaintiffs, arguing they suffered from laws making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers.

The preparations to challenge the state's tenure laws this summer follow a landmark ruling in California earlier this month. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu struck down the state's laws on tenure, dismissal and seniority, saying they disproportionately saddled poor and minority students with incompetent teachers. Evidence that ineffective teachers hurt learning, he wrote, "shocks the conscience."

California unions that intervened in the case, Vergara v. California, said they would appeal, and legal analysts predicted the ruling would inspire similar suits around the country.

Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said his union believes the Vergara decision will be overturned, and the facts are different in New York than in California. While he said that New York's new evaluation system has flaws, it aims to bolster teacher quality.

"The system is designed to help all teachers improve, and for those who struggle or don't belong in the system, to remove them in an expedited hearing," he said.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, said by email: "It is a shame so many so-called 'reformers' can't find a way to do something that would actually help students, teachers and schools."

Ms. Brown wants a verdict in her group's case to spur legislators to come up with better education policies. "My hope is this would be a wake-up call to politicians who failed to solve these problems for years," she said.

Her team has been meeting with parents to find plaintiffs. One is Jada Williams in Rochester, who wrote a seventh-grade essay complaining about teachers who she said gave no real instruction and failed to manage unruly students. Her mother, Carla, said in an interview: "When a child in class is educationally neglected, that's a criminal act."

David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed Students Matter, the advocacy group that filed the Vergara suit, has given Ms. Brown guidance, and came to a meeting of about 30 people at her apartment in April to discuss it, she said. A mother of two children in private school, Ms. Campbell said she gave seed money to the Partnership for Educational Justice. She declined to disclose other donors. She has applied for nonprofit status.

Jay Lefkowitz, a senior partner at Kirkland & Ellis, is leading the New York case pro bono. Mr. Lefkowitz, a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, fought for Wisconsin's school vouchers and prevailed through the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mr. Lefkowitz said "it boggles the mind" that in the New York education system the vast majority of teachers were rated effective or better last year even though 69% of students in grades three through eight didn't pass state proficiency tests.

"The system lacks integrity and students are being forced to pay the price," he said. Unions often note that many factors affect learning, such as poverty and parent involvement.

Mr. Lefkowitz said he plans to challenge statutes mandating that during budget cuts, districts must dismiss the newest teachers first, with no consideration of their performance. Unions have long argued that without seniority rules, districts would lay off more highly paid veterans to save money.

He said he will also challenge what he said are overly complicated disciplinary procedures that dissuade administrators from trying to revoke tenure; some of these cases have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Union officials emphasize that tenure doesn't guarantee a job for life, but enforces due process to shield teachers from arbitrary firings, nepotism and vindictive bosses. A district may seek to revoke tenure if a teacher gets two bad annual ratings in a row.
Mr. Lefkowitz plans to argue teachers are granted tenure before it is clear they deserve it. In New York, teachers generally get tenure at the end of three years of acceptable service, but principals can add another probationary year.
In the California case, the plaintiffs brought an equal-protection claim, arguing that a disproportionate share of bad teachers end up in schools serving disadvantaged students.
The New York constitution says children have a right to a "sound basic education." Mr. Lefkowitz plans to argue that laws leading to the retention of ineffective teachers hurt students no matter what their background. He said he plans to file the suit in New York Supreme Court in Albany.