New York State Teachers Union Sues Over Teacher Evaluation Scheme

NEW YORK -- The fight over how to measure the state's teachers made its way to court this week, with New York's largest teachers' union suing the Board of Regents and the state education commissioner over new teacher evaluation regulations.

"For us to do other than this -- we have 600,000 members -- would give me very little credibility with my own members," New York State United Teachers President Richard Iannuzzi told The Huffington Post.

On Monday, NYSUT filed a complaint, alleging that the Board of Regents overstepped its bounds in adapting a new teacher evaluation plan. The plan, according to the complaint, is "illegal and void, because the Board of Regents acted in excess of its authority, inconsistently with the law and arbitrarily, in enacting them."

The complaint seeks an injunction to halt the implementation of the board's new regulations that would allow state test scores to count for up to 40 percent of teacher evaluations. It also seeks a declaration that the regulations are unconstitutional.

"We accept the concept that 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation can reflect student growth. We're saying 20 percent of that can be standardized state test," Iannuzzi said. "The other part has to be locally developed, multiple measures of student growth. You shouldn’t just use one measure."

Iannuzzi said he opposes so heavily weighting students' state test scores in teachers' evaluations because it would exacerbate learning disparities between districts. "Their position is they're not requiring it, they're allowing it," he said. "That's going to create a greater divide between wealthy and poor districts. It's going to create a greater achievement gap -- a poor district is going to find that it has no option but to take the inexpensive and flawed approach of using the test twice."

Home to the country's largest school district with 1.1 million students, New York is one of many states that developed new guidelines for measuring teachers this year.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts' Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved guidelines that would, for the first time, have standardized tests count for teacher evaluations.

"I think this is the first such litigation," said Eric Hanushek, an expert on teacher quality and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "New York State usually leads the nation in racing to the courts to handle school policy issues."

He said the national policy moment that resulted in teacher evaluation laws and regulations stems from both the financial crisis and Race to the Top, a federal competition for grant money in exchange for the pursuit of specific education reforms. "Fiscal constraints on schools were introduced. They've led to a reevaluation of how you might lay off teachers if you have to reduce the size of the teaching force," he said.

NYSUT's complaint argues that the regulations violate a law passed as part of the state's application to Race to the Top. New York won $697 million in RTTT funding.

NYSUT helped legislators draft language that allows state tests to count for 20 percent of regulations, and another 20 percent should center on "other; locally selected measures of student achievement ... and are developed locally in a manner consistent with procedures negotiated pursuant to the requirements of article fourteen of the civil service law."

On Monday, a New York Supreme Court judge signed an order that gives the state until July 11 to show how its regulations do not violate that law.

Iannuzzi said that NYSUT worked on a task force that considered ways to implement the law, and signed on to an initial plan. When he found out the board was weighing giving districts the option to count test scores for up to 40 percent of evaluations at the last second, he decided to take action. "They were on notice that if they went that way, we would seek to sue to get them back to the language of the law," he said.

He said he is talking to the principals' union and the NAACP about joining the suit.

A representative from the State Education Department told the Albany Times-Union that the state expects the evaluation plan to be upheld in court.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, said the union is using antiquated tactics.

"Teachers are fighting change. They've convinced themselves that America is engaged in class warfare, that the union troubles in states like Wisconsin are indicative of that class warfare, that teachers are being blamed for the failings of education, that they're on the front lines of the battles of their lives," he said. "They're using strategies effective over the past 100 years instead of projecting forward."