Sept - Nov Issue
September 24, 2014

NYSUT comes out swinging in tenure fight

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Left to right: Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, addresses NYSUT’s newly designated communications ambassadors, including Stacey Caruso-Sharpe, Amsterdam TA; and Donna Kart, Wappingers Congress of Teachers, and John O’Gorman, Fairport TA. Photos by Marty Kerins Jr.
Caption: Left to right: Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education, addresses NYSUT’s newly designated communications ambassadors, including Stacey Caruso-Sharpe, Amsterdam TA; and Donna Kart, Wappingers Congress of Teachers, and Jeff Beall, Phelps-Clifton Springs FA. Photos by Marty Kerins Jr.


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In the court of law - and the court of public opinion - NYSUT is taking aggressive steps to fight back against the so-called education reform groups that are trying to take away teachers' due process rights like tenure. The bottom line: For more than a century, tenure has allowed New York's teachers to do their jobs and advocate effectively for students, while protecting good teachers against unfair firing.

NYSUT swiftly filed a motion in state Supreme Court for the right to be heard in two lawsuits challenging New York state's due process laws that establish tenure. One of the suits was filed by the Partnership for Educational Justice, a group headed by former television host Campbell Brown, that has ties to StudentsFirst, the Success Academy Charter Schools and Wall Street billionaires. The suits are now combined.

The attorney general's office is defending New York state. NYSUT is seeking to intervene on behalf of seven representative teachers - including three New York State Teachers of the Year - who affirm that their ability to teach and advocate for their students would be jeopardized without the commonsense safeguards tenure provides.

"Tenure helps safeguard children's rights to an effective education because it provides teachers freedom to advocate for their students without fear of reprisal," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee, who frequently advocated for resources for her students with special needs during her 30 years of teaching in Harrison.

"Because of tenure, teachers can and do speak up for what their students need - and against overtesting, outdated textbooks and cuts to academic programs.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." NYSUT is also mounting intense efforts to educate members and the public about the tenets of due process and why it is essential to public education.

The first-ever Communications Ambassadors Network, composed of exemplary educators, recently attended a day-and-a-half briefing by NYSUT legal, research and educational services and communications staff on the current threats to tenure and ways they can set the record straight in the public arena.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," said Magee. Contrary to what the critics claim, she said, tenure is working in New York state. The process has been reformed to be faster and more cost-efficient.

While Campbell Brown continues to say in interviews that it takes more than 800 days to fire a bad teacher, the truth is most cases are resolved within five months. Teachersupported reforms made to the law in 2012 require cases that go to a hearing to be completed within 155 days, Magee noted.

NYSUT's motion states Brown and her supporters are trying 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."

The court papers note tenure must be earned; it is not automatic. In fact, New York's three-year probationary period for considerably longer than what is required under New York law for other public servants who also have due process rights.

In addition, New York state's teaching standards and credentialing requirements are among the highest in the nation. Unlike in many states, New York teachers are required to earn a master's degree within five years of certification.

NYSUT, in its court documents, says teachers and their union have a "real and substantial interest" in the outcome of the anti-tenure case because dismantling tenure would jeopardize their teaching as well as their basic terms and conditions of employment.

Brown, who never went to public school and never taught in one, blames tenure for low student achievement in needy districts. The truth is teachers in the wealthiest districts have the identical due process and seniority rights as teachers in the poorest districts - yet students in wealthy districts have much higher graduation and college acceptance rates.

Of course the real factor contributing to these differences in achievement is poverty, Magee said.

"Students in our poorest districts have the greatest needs but are given the least resources, with our richest districts spending 180 percent as much on education as our poorer districts do. Rather than blaming tenure, critics might better focus on the real causes, such as inadequate funding, unreasonable class size and attendance issues," Magee said.

The only "guarantee" inherent in tenure, she said, "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."

Joining Magee in the motion to intervene are Seth Cohen, a Troy earth science teacher; Daniel Delehanty, an Advanced Placement social studies teacher in Rochester; 2013 state Teacher of the Year Ashli Skura Dreher, a Lewiston-Porter High School special education teacher; 2012 state Teacher of the Year Kathleen Ferguson, a Schenectady elementary teacher; Israel Martinez, a Spanish and French teacher in Niagara Falls; 2008 state Teacher of the Year Richard Ognibene, a Fairport chemistry teacher; and Lonnette R. Tuck, a White Plains social studies teacher.