By Briana Vannozzi
Six Newark parents are part of a lawsuit challenging the state’s teacher tenure law. The suit contends the rule frequently referred to as last in, first out forces districts to retain ineffective teachers with seniority at the expense of a student’s education.
“Your requirement is to teach and if you’re not doing it, you need to go,” said Tanisha Garner, a plaintiff in HG v. Harrington.
A group of parent advocates are targeting the seniority law with the help of the Partnership for Educational Justice, a New York education reform group founded by former journalist and reform advocate Campbell Brown.
“If the courts would free Newark to be able to take quality into account, so that they didn’t have to keep unqualified teachers on the payroll, would free up millions of dollars,” said Attorney Kent Yalowitz.
Yalowitz is an attorney with the leading law firm representing the Newark families. He says the district and its dire financial situation is just one example out of many in the state where big bucks are being spent to protect senior teachers with poor evaluations from layoffs. The suit is asking the courts to find the seniority rule unconstitutional.
“We want Newark to have the freedom and flexability to take quality into account when they decide that they need to lay off teachers,” Yalowitz said.
The head of Newark’s teachers’ union says the law is in place specifically to protect educators in politically charged districts like Newark from outside groups forcing their hand.
“These cases make millions of dollars for the law firms that defend them and the goal ultimately is to make millions of dollars for the corporate charter schools that they invest in,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.
Abeigon admonished Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf for publicly supporting the lawsuit at a recent state Board of Education hearing, questioning how he’ll defend the district he represents if he’s philosophically aligned with the suit.
“These teachers were not found unsatisfactory by anyone other than the district. So when you have Chris Cerf and Cami Anderson, who for their argument they need to create a pool of unsatisfactory teachers, well that’s exactly what they did,” Abeigon said.
The New Jersey Education Association called the partnership an “out-of-state special interest group” that’s “misleading New Jersey parents and residents about our public schools to advance their harmful political agenda,” adding the seniority statute provides “important protection to students and communities by keeping politics, and politicians, out of the decision-making process when layoffs are imposed on our public schools.”
But Garner worries her two young children aren’t being protected, saying their teachers have hindered their progress.
“The time has come in an era of shrinking resources to take a hard look at what this actually does to the families who live in communities where resources are short,” Yalowitz said.
Late today the parent advocates and Partnership for Educational Justice filed a motion to intervene with the lawsuit over New Jersey’s decades old school funding formula Abbott v. Burke. It provides low income districts with substantial supplemental funding. Teacher unions are questioning the involvement and say all the protections the state has put in place is one reason New Jersey public schools are among the best in the nation.