Lawyers for the city, the state, the UFT and its state affiliate NYSUT asked a Staten Island judge on Aug. 25 to dismiss the lawsuit to abolish tenure brought by TV personality Campbell Brown and others on the grounds that the state Legislature has dealt with many of the issues in play.
The union lawyers argued that Brown and her group were bent on destroying teachers’ due process rights under the guise of education reform. “Creating a climate that demonizes teachers does not help children and it does not improve education,” Charles Moerdler, a partner at the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, which is representing the UFT, said after the hearing.
The lawsuit, filed in 2014 after plaintiffs in California won a similar lawsuit at the lower court level, charges that teacher tenure deprives New York children of a sound, basic education, as guaranteed by the state constitution.
“It would be unprecedented to say public employees can have no job protection,” said Richard Casagrande, the NYSUT general counsel, in his oral argument in court. “This is a political attack that says if we just take away teacher rights, we’ll improve education.”
The UFT and NYSUT joined city and state attorneys in arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the state Legislature this spring significantly altered the statute governing tenure and the teacher evaluation and discipline process. For new hires, the standard probationary period is now four years and teachers will usually need three years of Effective or Highly Effective ratings to earn tenure. In addition, teacher disciplinary proceedings have been further expedited.
Their remarks were made during oral arguments before Justice Philip G. Minardo in a packed courtroom of the Richmond County Supreme Court on Staten Island. Minardo reserved his decision for a later date after hearing passionate arguments from — and asking pointed questions of — both sides.
Minardo grilled union representatives on the details of the legislative changes but saved some of his toughest questions for Jay Lefkowitz, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Lefkowitz argued that the lawsuit should proceed because changes in the law merely “tweaked” existing laws. He also insisted that the teacher evaluation process was based on “soft factors” or subjective observations instead of “hard metrics.”
The judge reminded him that evaluations are based in part on student performance on tests as well as observations, which may indeed be subjective. “Subjectivity has a place in all professions, does it not?” he asked.
During the hearing and afterward in remarks to the press, Moerdler drew a direct connection between attacks on teachers and the news of a nationwide teacher shortage.
“For the past 10 years, teachers have been demonized across the country,” he said. “You can’t demonize people and expect them to say, ‘hit me again.’ We’ve got to end this reign of terror.”