Six Newark, N.J., parents—who are being backed by the Partnership for Educational Justice, the same group that brought lawsuits against teacher tenure laws in New York and Minnesota—have sued the state asserting that New Jersey’s “last in, first out” policy for laying off teachers keeps bad veteran teachers in the classroom, thus undermining their children’s right to a quality education.
The New Jersey suit is the latest in a nationwide effort to use the courts to upend teacher tenure policies that education reformers say too often hurt those who can afford it the least—namely, poor and nonwhite students. So far, these judicial efforts have largely failed to gain traction. Courts in both Minnesota and California—home to the landmark Vergara case that spawned this wave of legal challenges—have ruled that this was an issue best decided by the state legislature, not the judiciary.
What makes the New Jersey case different from previous lawsuits is that it’s more narrowly tailored to take on just one aspect of teachers’ tenure protections: that schools must decide which teachers to lay off during budget cuts based on seniority, not performance.
“Especially as our schools face severe budget cuts, our children deserve the best teachers possible, and the ‘last in, first out’ teacher layoff law stands in the way of this,” Tanisha Garner, a mother of two Newark Public School students and one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said in a press release. “It’s time to stand up to the elected officials who are playing politics with our children’s futures.”
Wendell Steinhauer—the president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers union—argues that the lawsuit is “premised on a lie” and that the onus is on schools to dismiss ineffective teachers.
“Hiding behind the specter of layoffs is cowardly,” said Steinhauer in a press release. "[I]f a teacher is not effective, a district should not wait until layoffs to take action. That teacher should be given the opportunity and support needed to show improvement and if there is not improvement, the district should take action under the tenure law to prove that the teacher is not doing his or her job. That doesn’t require a financial crisis; it just requires conscientious administrators.”
After initially filling a separate suit, the plaintiffs asked the courts to adjoin the case with the state’s decades-old school funding lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke. That motion runs counter to a filing by the administration of Governor Chris Christie that asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to release the state from the previously ordered school-funding formula and to let the state Commissioner of Education revoke teacher tenure protections in the 31 low-income “Abbott” districts. The move was part of a larger Christie agenda to end a court-mandated funding formula that requires the state to send more money to financially-struggling districts in an effort to eliminate funding gaps between the state’s rich and poor districts. Instead, the Newark parents are asking the court to consider the “last in, first out” policy on its own merit, and argue that its enforcement shouldn’t be left up to a political appointee.
“The interests of these Newark families are not represented by either side in the state’s motion to re-open Abbott v. Burke, and we think it is critical that the court hear from the parents whose children have the most at stake,” Kent Yalowitz, a lawyer representing the parents, said in a statement. “New Jersey’s quality-blind teacher layoff law violates student’s constitutional rights, and these families deserve the attention of the court.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.