ALBANY, N.Y. August 29, 2014 - New York State United Teachers today moved to intervene in Wright v. New York as a defender of tenure, which for more than a century has allowed New York's teachers to teach and advocate effectively for students while protecting good teachers against unfair firing.
NYSUT's motion, filed in state Supreme Court in Albany, strikes back against the Partnership for Educational Justice, a group headed by former television host Campbell Brown with ties to Students' First, the Success Academy Charter School network and several Wall Street billionaires. NYSUT is seeking to intervene on behalf of seven representative teachers - including three New York State Teachers of the Year - whose ability to teach would be jeopardized without the commonsense safeguards that tenure provides.
NYSUT said teachers and their union have a "real and substantial interest' in the outcome of the case because dismantling tenure would jeopardize their teaching as well as their basic terms and conditions of employment. Tenure must be earned; it is not automatic. Once a teacher is granted tenure - generally after three years or more of service, oversight and evaluation - a teacher cannot be fired without a fair hearing.
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee said the union is aggressively defending the teaching profession in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. "Tenure is a safeguard that ensures good teachers can speak up for what their students need. It is a safeguard that protects good teachers from unfair firing - a basic due-process right. And tenure is working in New York state. The process has been reformed to be faster and more cost-efficient.'
"Tenure helps safeguard children's rights to an effective education because it provides teachers freedom to advocate for their students without fear of reprisal. Because of tenure, teachers can and do speak out against over-testing, outdated textbooks and cuts to academic programs. Teachers can - and do - join parents in advocating for students without the fear they can be unfairly fired for doing so,' Magee said. "New York state's rigorous teaching standards provide many safeguards that ensure children have good teachers. Tenure is one of them.'
Magee added, "This war on teachers by Wall Street's wealthy elite is especially pernicious because it ignores the facts. The only 'guarantee' inherent in tenure is that teachers who earn it - like those who are bravely standing up and representing their colleagues - are not subject to arbitrary firing based on discrimination, nepotism, patronage, favoritism or ever-shifting political winds.'
Magee noted New York's tenure laws were amended in 2008, 2010 and 2012 to reduce the length and cost of disciplinary proceedings. "Campbell Brown, who is represented by a high-powered legal team, must know this. Instead, she continues to misrepresent the facts. Teacher-supported reforms made to the law in 2012 require cases that go to a hearing to be completed within 155 days. Most cases are now resolved within five months.'
NYSUT's motion states Brown and her supporters are trying to "to eviscerate laws that have been carefully designed and continually and rationally refined by the Legislature, over the course of more than a century, to attract and retain qualified, dedicated public school teachers, and to protect them from arbitrary dismissal, in the interest of promoting the best possible education for New York's school children. The evisceration of these laws would not only damage the professional and legal interest of school teachers, but would impair the right of New York's school children to a sound basic education.'
Brown, who never went to public school and never taught in one, has been working the media circuit on education. "It's time we hear from people who have dedicated their lives to New York's school children, including those in our poorest districts. Unlike Campbell Brown, teachers are ordinary working people and their voices deserve to be heard,' Magee said.
In addition to Magee, joining the suit as potential interveners are:
Seth Cohen, an Earth Science teacher in Troy, a high-needs district forced by budget cuts to eliminate about 80 teaching positions over the last four years. Many Troy students do not have Internet access or a computer at home, making it difficult for students to complete assignments. "None of the problems my school district faces will be rectified by taking away or diminishing the professional safeguards that I and my colleagues were promised when we became public school teachers, and which we earned through years of dedicated service,' said Cohen, who is also a parent and is president of the Troy Teachers' Association.
Daniel Delehanty, a highly accomplished, award-winning Advanced Placement social studies teacher in the Rochester City School District. Delehanty achieved national board certification in 2011, a symbol of teaching excellence and mastery of his craft. He notes in his affidavit, "As a teacher of U.S. History, I cover many controversial topics in my classroom. For example, one debate-style lesson dealt with gun control. The student-led debate of the pros and cons of gun control resulted in a parent complaint to the superintendent requesting my termination. Without the tenure law safeguards, my career could have been jeopardized by a single parental complaint.'
Ashli Skura Dreher, an award-winning special education teacher at Lewiston-Porter High School, a parent and the 2014 New York State Teacher of the Year. Dreher notes in her affidavit that tenure's safeguards "further collaboration between teachers in the school community. Without such objective safeguards, in the event of economic layoffs, more senior and highly compensated teachers could be targeted, as could teachers who have spoken out for students or about problems in the school district.' She adds, "My students are the beneficiaries of my many years of hard work and professional development. I could not have attained this mastery without the job security afforded by the tenure and seniority laws.'
Kathleen Ferguson, an elementary teacher in Schenectady, where 80 percent of the district's nearly 10,000 students are considered economically disadvantaged. She is the 2010 Schenectady City Teacher of the Year and the 2012 New York State Teacher of the Year. Ferguson currently teaches an inclusion class where nearly half her students have special needs. Ferguson's affidavit states, "The safeguards afforded to me under New York's tenure laws are important to me. These safeguards allow me to practice my profession in the best interests of the children I teach, with reasonable assurance that I will not be arbitrarily fired or punished.'
Israel Martinez, a Spanish and French teacher and parent, as well as a cross country, track and wrestling coach, in the Niagara Falls City School District, an impoverished community in which about 70 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. His affidavit notes he has daughters in third- and fifth-grade. "My daughters benefit … as these laws ensure that teachers are afforded the necessary safeguards that allow them to teach without fear of unjust reprisal.'
Richard Ognibene Jr., a chemistry teacher at Fairport Senior High School and 2008 New York State Teacher of the Year. Ognibene is an advisor to the Gay Straight Alliance, which meets regularly to discuss social issues, including how to make the school more welcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. His affidavit notes, "I became a teacher because I cannot imagine spending my life doing anything else. My parents were teachers and I consider it a noble profession. I am dedicated to the children I teach and to my profession. (Tenure) is particularly crucial to me as a public school teacher. Under recent U.S. Supreme Court precedent, when I speak on behalf of my students in my capacity as a public school teacher, I may have no protection under the First Amendment.'
Lonnette R. Tuck, a social studies teacher in White Plains since 1988, a graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, Texas, and a former Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the United States Navy. Her affidavit notes the seniority safeguards provided by tenure are important. "I am an outspoken advocate for my profession and my students. I have attended numerous Board of Education meetings and attended rallies. Additionally, I have faced criticism from parents who were disgruntled over the grades I gave to their children, notwithstanding the fact that the grades were appropriate.'
New York State United Teachers is a statewide union with more than 600,000 members in education, human services and health care. NYSUT is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.