NEWARK, NJ - A group of parents is appealing to the state Supreme Court to hear their case challenging state laws that require newer teachers be laid off first without considering job performance.
The case, filed in 2016, has already been dismissed by the state superior and appellate courts.
Six parents and their children, who attend Newark Public Schools, filed the suit against former state Department of Education Acting Commissioner Kimberly Harrington, the state Board of Education and the former Newark schools' administration.
When cuts need to be made, the “last in, first out” statute requires all school districts to fire teachers that were hired most recently before senior faculty. The plaintiffs say the law is “quality-blind” and has left students with ineffective teachers in classrooms since job performance isn’t allowed to be considered.
In Newark, the public school district worked around the law by paying ineffective - and more senior - teachers to work in supportive, non-teaching roles to avoid laying off effective instructors first, the suit says. The parents say this drains funds that could be used for hiring new teachers or investing in programs.
Tanisha Garner, Noemi Vazquez, Fareeah Harris, Shonda Allen, Iris Smith, Wendy Soto are represented by lawyers from the Partnership for Educational Justice, a non-profit organization that has worked on other "teacher quality" lawsuits in different states.
“New Jersey’s courts have acknowledged that students have but one chance to receive a constitutionally adequate education, and that right, once lost, cannot be reclaimed,” said the organization's executive director, Alissa Bernstein. “These parents know that their children, and every child in Newark, deserve that chance.”
The New Jersey Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the local teachers union oppose the suit. Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said he supports the “last in, first out” statue.
“Unfortunately, we live in a very politicized state and teachers and other public employees need job protections,” Abeigon said in a phone interview today. He added that there is already a process to remove ineffective, tenured teachers outlined in the TEACHNJ Act.
One of the reasons the lower courts dismissed the case was because the plaintiffs couldn't show an immediate threat of harm to the students in the suit.
“How many times does a court have to tell them that there’s no basis here?” he said of the plaintiffs latest request of the state’s highest court.
Although the Newark Public Schools are named as nominal defendants in the suit, the case could potentially impact all districts throughout the state.
The Newark public schools are an Abbott district and get funding from the state to match other municipalities that have a wealthier tax base. The suit claims the current law isn’t helping Abbott schools that have struggled. About 25 percent of Newark Public Schools students didn’t graduate from high school in 2015-2016.
Teachers’ evaluations use a ranking system of highly effective, effective, partially effective or ineffective. Evaluations are not publicly available.
The parents’ complaint alleges that Newark employed almost half the ineffective teachers in the state at the time the suit was initially filed. The suit claims that should Newark layoff teachers, the current law would mandate that 75 percent of laid-off teachers would be rated above effective.
The suit also claims that in the 2013-2014 school year, 271 teachers were placed in full-time supportive roles to circumvent state law, costing the district approximately $22.5 million. But in 2015, the suit alleges those teachers were placed in classrooms because the district could no longer afford to keep them in supportive roles.
The certification for the parents' petition to the Supreme Court is still pending, a court official said.