Teacher Tenure Fight Spills Into N.Y., Where A New Lawsuit Brews

A new salvo has been fired in the fight over teacher tenure. A group led by former TV anchor Campbell Brown filed a complaint in New York state court, arguing that tenure laws are preventing the state from providing every child with the "sound, basic education" its constitution guarantees.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Ari Shapiro sitting in this week.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with the heated fight over teacher tenure. Today in New York a group of seven families filed a complaint in state courts. They say tenure rules are getting in the way of the state's obligation to give all students a sound basic education.

SHAPIRO: The suit is the latest reverberations from last month's Vergara ruling in California. In that case a state judge said tenure laws violate the right of low income students to get an equal education.

CORNISH: In a moment we'll hear about more tenure challenges that may be in works in other parts of the country. But first Beth Fertig of member station WNYC reports on today's challenge.

BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: The New York lawsuit is notable for its Scope and the people behind it. It was spearheaded by former TV anchor Campbell Brown, through her partnership for educational Justice. And she's relying on pro bono representation from the major law firm Kirkland & Ellis. Attorney Jay Lefkowitz.

JAY LEFKOWITZ: Having bad teachers in the classroom, having bad teachers who can't be removed, having a rating system which really makes a mockery of a legitimate rating system for teachers, these are all a systematic deprivation of the right to a sound education.

FERTIG: The suit notes that more than 90 percent of the state's teachers were rated highly effective or effective in 2012, while just 31 percent of elementary and middle school students scored proficient on their math and reading tests the next year. And it cites data showing disadvantaged students tend to get less effective teachers on average. In announcing the lawsuit, Brown stood with dozens of supporters and the seven parents who have signed on as plaintiffs.

CAMPBELL BROWN: This is not going to be easy and they are so incredibly brave to be taken this on. And I'm so proud to be standing here and supporting them here today.

FERTIG: One of those plaintiffs is Nina Doster, who has three children in New York City public schools. The Queen's mother claims her soon to be second-grader isn't reading on grade level because of his classroom teacher.

NINA DOSTER: She didn't put the effort into it, I've known her since my oldest went to that school and it doesn't seem like she, you know put effort into it anymore.

FERTIG: Doster is also an organizer with the groups "Students First" a frequent critic of teachers unions. The lawsuit is modeled after the Vergara suite in California but there are big differences between the laws in the two states. In California tenure kicks in after only 18 months on the job. In New York it takes three years. New York State has also been using a more rigorous teacher evaluation system. These are just some of the reasons why skeptics believe the suit is likely to fail. Michael Rebell runs the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University. In 2003 he persuaded the state's highest court that New York's funding formula was unconstitutional because it left city schools with outdated textbooks and crumbling facilities.

MICHAEL REBELL: That the courts are willing to take a stand on. Now what the details of that educational program are, you know, what your system is for hiring teachers, what your curriculum is and all these other things. The courts are going to be very wary about getting involved in.

FERTIG: The Teachers Union has also argued that tenure only guarantees due process and isn't a job for life. Critics have questioned Brown's involvement because her own children attend private schools but she says that's precisely why she wanted to help other parents.

BROWN: There is a difference in what I'm able to provide my children and they're able to provide there's. And that to me is incredibly unfair.

FERTIG: Brown says she's looking to bring similar lawsuits in other states. For NPR News I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

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