New York’s Tenure Laws Go to Court

Earlier this week, oral arguments opened in Wright v. New York, a lawsuit challenging New York statutes that make it nearly impossible to replace teachers who are not up to the job. This first motion will determine whether or not the case should proceed at all. It should. Like Vergara v. California before it, Wright v. New York forces a much needed examination about whether the state is delivering on its legal obligations. 

Seven families filed the suit in July, arguing that several laws are denying their children access to the “sound education” guaranteed by the state’s constitution. Keoni Wright’s family is one of those seven, and Wright is the plaintiff who gave his name to this lawsuit. A native of Brownsville, Brooklyn and the father of twin girls, both public school students, Wright signed on because he’s seen the direct impact of teachers—great and not so great—on his daughters. In 2012, both girls entered kindergarten at the same neighborhood school. One landed in a classroom with a dedicated, diligent teacher; that daughter is now an avid reader, Wright says. Just across the hall, her sister’s kindergarten experience was a notable contrast. For him, this case is not about politics or policy. It’s about creating a brighter future for his daughters.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of the historic decision in Vergara v. California, which overturned similar statutes in California last year. And as in Vergara, the plaintiffs in Wright v. New York contend that the laws they’re challenging put students in low-income communities—those who need great teachers the most—at the greatest disadvantage. They can point to some compelling facts: When tenure policies shield even grossly negligent teachers from being dismissed, and quality-blind layoff policies make it illegal to protect the most effective teachers when positions need to be cut, ineffective teachers are too often assigned to classrooms in the neediest schools—where the stakes for kids are highest. These things have been an open secret in urban school districts for decades. Like Vergara, the Wright case confronts a hard truth: that laws put in place to protect teachers’ rights are hurting students in some instances, and the students who are most adversely affected are those who already have the deck stacked against them.

It’s worth noting the reason that the plaintiffs in Wright say they have turned to the courts. They see it only as a last resort, given that their elected representatives consistently refused to address New York’s laws. Like the families in Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove (CA) School District (1931), a class action suit in which parents fought an attempt to segregate their children from the white children with whom they had been attending school; and those in Mendez et al v. Westminster School District et al (1946), who demanded an end to the segregation of Mexican children; and those in Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School District (1948), who fought to end the practice of barring Mexican students from attending public schools with other white schoolchildren, the families in Wright and Vergara are demonstrating the tremendous value of education for their children by standing on the front lines when many of our elected officials have retreated.

They are right to do so. But better tenure and dismissal policies ought to be possible without legal challenges. In the fall, we shared some recommendations for common-sense changes to current tenure and dismissal policies. With some reasonable compromises, state legislatures and teachers unions can ensure that students have equal access to effective teachers without jeopardizing reasonable job protections.

Across the country, parents like Keoni Wright trust public schools with their children’s futures. I am proud of those parents, like the parents before them who fought for better schools. Our children deserve equal opportunities to learn from excellent educators who will inspire and challenge them. We’ll be watching closely to see if New York’s students get the equitable access to great teachers they deserve.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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