To the casual observer, a law requiring layoffs of competent teachers while ineffective teachers stay employed might not seem like it is in the best interest of students. Enter the state of New Jersey, where the law requires exactly that.
So six parents from Newark filed a lawsuit this month challenging the constitutionality of the state’s 2012 legislative overhaul of the tenure system, which made tenure more difficult to achieve while preserving the principle of last-in-first-out (LIFO) for teacher layoffs.
Fareeah Harris, a parent plaintiff and mother of four with two children currently in the Newark public school system, told Watchdog.org she was “very confident” in the strength of the lawsuit.
“The purpose of a teacher is to educate our kids,” said Harris. “It’s not an easy job, but for your job to be saved alone on your date of hire and it affects another being, I’m totally against it.”
Harris said she decided to join the lawsuit after hearing about it during a workshop at a New Jersey parents’ summit. She called the whole idea of basing layoffs on seniority rather than merit “ludicrous.”
“Our future matters and our children are our future,” said Harris. “They are in the hands of the parents and the teachers. Just as parents need to be effective, so do teachers. … My question is if you are not fulfilling your purpose why are you there?”
The Partnership for Educational Justice is supporting the parents in the case, one of whom, Tanisha Garner, is the mother of the named plaintiff in the case against Kimberly Harrington, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education.
The lawsuit asserts that New Jersey’s LIFO law violates students’ right to an education by unfairly requiring school districts to ignore teacher quality and retain ineffective teachers.
The plaintiffs also argue against proposed budget cuts for Newark and other low-income school districts, in addition to asking that the State Education Commissioner be given authority to waive LIFO in Newark and similarly situated districts.
‘The best teachers possible’
In HG v. Harrington, the plaintiff parents argue against a recent filing from the New Jersey State Commissioner of Education to the New Jersey Supreme Court seeking to reopen a decades-old school funding case, Abbott v. Burke, which would remove the requirement for the state to provide extra funding to 31 of the state’s poorest school districts.
The plaintiffs oppose the request and cite reports that Newark could lose almost 69 percent of its state education funding if the request is approved.
The parents argue that the issues of state funding and teacher layoffs are bound together.
Under the state’s LIFO law, 75 percent of teachers facing layoffs are either effective or highly effective, according to a layoff simulation done by Newark Public Schools in 2014. Only 4 percent of those laid off would be ineffective. Meanwhile, Newark’s public school teaching staff during the same year was 15 percent ineffective overall.
Therefore, according to Ralia Polechronis, executive director of the Partnership for Educational Justice, by the school district’s own admission, LIFO policies are negatively affecting students.
“That in and of itself is an indication of the strength of the case,” said Polechronis.
Similar cases have been filed in California, New York and Minnesota.
Supporters of LIFO say it provides important protections for teachers.
In a statement released Nov. 1, the day the lawsuit was filed, New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer argued that teachers might be removed from their posts for politically motivated reasons if the seniority rules do not remain intact.
“Tenure is difficult to obtain in New Jersey, so no teacher gets tenure without demonstrating an ability to do the job well,” he said. “Even more, the tenure law outlines a specific and fair process to remove a teacher who is ineffective at any time. What the law prevents is the sort of political interference that would be inevitable if administrators could be pressured to fire teachers without having to give a reason. This lawsuit seeks to throw out that system of checks and balances and give unfettered freedom to fire excellent veteran teachers in favor of less experienced newer teachers who earn lower salaries.”
New Jersey is one of 10 states with LIFO rules for teachers.
“In no instance should we forget that at the center of this fight is that kids in public schools deserve to be taught by the best teachers possible,” said Polechronis.