By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ
July 29, 2014
Education advocates in recent days have assailed job protections for New York teachers as antiquated, unwarranted and unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, the United Federation of Teachers, which represents 75,000 educators across the city, fired back. In an eight-page memo, the union argued that tenure laws help guard against unjust firings, while providing city officials with a way to remove teachers it deemed ineffective.
In the wake of a landmark California decision that struck down teacher tenure laws in June, the union is girding for an intense battle over the job protections that have long been its lifeblood.
Already, two parent groups in New York have filed lawsuits modeled on the California case, arguing that tenure laws run counter to the state’s guarantee of a quality education for all students. The groups contend that it can be exceedingly difficult to remove subpar teachers from the classroom and that veteran teachers are too often shielded from dismissal. (The California decision is expected to go through appeals.)
Adam Ross, the general counsel for the United Federation of Teachers, said the lawsuits were misleading, and that a large number of teachers left the school system each year.
“The notion that there is permanent employment in city schools is incorrect,” Mr. Ross said. “There is a process in place for removing teachers if necessary.”
According to data compiled by labor leaders, 167 teachers who were engaged in disciplinary proceedings in the 2012-13 school year eventually resigned, retired or were terminated from city schools. Another 149 teachers were fined or suspended.
Critics of tenure laws argue that the process of removing teachers is overly cumbersome, and that too few teachers are fired each year on the basis of poor performance. They also take issue with rules requiring newly hired teachers to be laid off first, regardless of ability, in times of economic strain.
In New York, teacher tenure laws have long provoked controversy. A recent study by a Columbia University researcher found that from 1997 to 2007, just 12 teachers in New York City were dismissed for incompetence. And a 2008 report by the New York State School Boards Association found that disciplinary proceedings involving teachers accused of incompetence dragged on for an average of 830 days and cost an average of $313,000. (The report excluded cases from New York City.)
Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union, which filed a lawsuit challenging tenure laws in State Supreme Court on Staten Island this month, called the union’s memo “spin.” She said it ignored the fact that many lackluster teachers worked in high-poverty schools.
“The current system that is in place is not working,” Ms. Davids said.
A second lawsuit, led by the former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, was filed in Albany this week. It contends that current laws, which allow a teacher to earn tenure after three years of employment, are arbitrary and do not give school officials adequate time to assess whether a teacher will be effective.
“No amount of fuzzy math will change the fact that many low-income families are tired of being shortchanged by the status quo and have decided to take action,” Ms. Brown said of the union’s memo on Tuesday.
In its report, the union sought to respond to criticism that disciplinary proceedings were unwieldy, saying its data showed that cases typically ended within 105 days.
Education Department officials could not immediately verify the union’s figures. “We will continue to work with the U.F.T. to ensure that cases are heard in a fair, appropriate and efficient manner,” Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman, said.