New York (CNN) — An education advocacy group has filed a lawsuit against New York City and state education officials challenging teacher-tenure laws, on the heels of a watershed case in which a California judge ruled that state’s tenure laws unconstitutional.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in State Supreme Court on behalf of 11 New York City public school students claims that tenure laws can prevent students from receiving a “sound basic education,” according to a statement from the New York City Parents Union, of which parents of the plaintiffs are members.
“Teachers in New York City are more likely to die on the job than be replaced because of poor performance,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit is framed similarly to a case brought in California, in which a judge in June deemed teacher tenure unconstitutional, saying it kept bad teachers in the classroom and forced out promising good ones.
That landmark ruling was hailed by the nation’s top education chief as opening opportunities across the nation to “build a new framework for the teaching profession.” The decision represented “a mandate” to fix a broken teaching system, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
In New York, the lawsuit claims that under city law an educator who obtains tenure is shielded from dismissal, no matter how incompetent they are or how poorly their students perform.
“The state requires a quality-blind approach to layoffs that considers only years of service — and completely ignores job performance and the ability to deliver a sound quality education,” the lawsuit said.
But the New York State United Teachers union said tenure laws are “wildly misunderstood” and claimed teacher tenure does not ensure a job for life, as is commonly believed.
“Earning tenure in New York simply means that, if a teacher is accused of incompetence or wrongdoing, she is entitled to a fair hearing before she can be fired,” NYSUT President Karen E. Magee said in a statement last week.
CNN was unable to reach the union for comment Friday about the lawsuit.
Magee called the process for removing teachers “due process of law.”
The Parents Union, however, called the process rare.
The lawsuit said only 12 teachers between 1997 and 2007 in the New York City school system were formally replaced because of poor performance. The New York City Department of Education has 75,000 teachers in any given year, working in the largest school system in the country.
Mona Davids and Sam Pirozzolo — the parents union’s president and vice president — said in a statement that the legal action was not an attack on teachers or unions, but rather an attempt to give their children a voice and establish a system that “rewards and retains excellent teachers” while providing appropriate resources to struggling teachers.
Reforming teacher tenure and firing laws is a hotly debated issue in American education, with the California case widely seen as setting the stage for similar action nationally.
Reformers say tenure laws and union protections make firing a bad teacher almost impossible, but teachers and their unions argue that school boards and their firing criteria have unfair, overtly political standards.
The NYC Department of Education is the largest system of public schools in the United States, serving about 1.1 million students in more than 1,700 schools.