Courts Hear Challenge to NY Teacher Tenure


Lawyers for teachers’ unions, New York City and New York state asked a judge on Wednesday to dismiss two lawsuits challenging statutes governing teacher tenure, saying the lawsuits raise issues that should be decided by the Legislature.

“The issues that are raised in this lawsuit are political,” city lawyer Janice Birnbaum told Judge Philip Minardo, of Staten Island state Supreme Court. “The court cannot step into the role of essentially revising the statutes that the plaintiffs are challenging.”

The plaintiffs argue that teacher tenure and layoffs by seniority deprive students of the sound, basic education they are guaranteed under the state constitution. They also contend the hearing process for dismissing a teacher is so cumbersome it’s almost impossible to fire an ineffective teacher.

“We’re fighting for the lives of our children, for our children’s education, for the future educations of all New York City and New York state’s children,” plaintiff Sam Pirozzolo said before the hearing.

The lawsuits were inspired by a California judge’s ruling in June striking down that state’s teacher tenure laws. Davids v. New York was filed in Staten Island, while Wright v. New York, was filed in Albany by a group headed by former CNN personality Campbell Brown. The cases were consolidated in September.

Lawyers for teachers’ unions, which are intervening as defendants, told the judge the plaintiffs have not shown in their court filings that their children had ineffective teachers, nor have they said what makes a teacher ineffective.

“Have you heard or read one line — one line — in plaintiffs’ papers that define an ineffective teacher?” asked Charles Moerdler, a lawyer for the United Federation of Teachers.

But Jay Lefkowitz, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in Wright v. New York, said the fact that nearly 70 percent of the students who took last year’s statewide standardized tests failed to perform at grade level means the system is “in crisis.”

Lefkowitz said the plaintiffs have standing to bring their lawsuits even if their children have not had ineffective teachers.

“There isn’t an obligation to allege specific injuries to individuals,” he said. “The plaintiffs are at imminent risk of being taught by an ineffective teacher.”