Op-ed: New Jersey Parents — Our Voices Must Be Heard

Tanisha Garner | November 7, 2016 | Opinion
How one Newark parent ended up suing the state to change a broken education law

Tanisha Garner
Education has always been important to me. When I was a student, I was passionate about my English classes, which helped me become a writer and poet. Now as a mother, I do everything I can to ensure that my three daughters get the best education possible.

The Newark public schools are far from perfect. They’re underfunded and the class sizes need to be smaller. Students should be taught more life skills like financial literacy and time management.

But it’s not all bad. My daughters have been lucky to learn from some terrific teachers. Teachers who hold their students to high standards and have the dedication to keep working with children until they are excited to learn and proud of their accomplishments. These teachers collaborate with parents, and ensure that we know how to support our children’s learning at home. Ask any parent the value of a good teacher, and they’ll tell you she’s worth her weight in gold.

But unfortunately, many parents — especially African-American parents in urban areas — have seen firsthand that not all teachers are so dedicated to their students’ learning. It was awful to see my daughter fall behind last year because of a teacher who couldn’t meet her where she was academically and allowed her to lose ground.

This is why I was so upset to learn that Newark Public Schools might soon be forced to let some of our best teachers go, while allowing ineffective teachers to stay. And Newark isn’t the only city facing this broken mandate. While politicians in Trenton discuss budget cuts to New Jersey’s public schools, many parents throughout the state are unaware of an education law that requires schools to lay off teachers with zero consideration for their classroom effectiveness.

The policy I’m referencing is often called New Jersey’s LIFO law — LIFO is short for “last in, first out” — and ours is one of only 10 states in the country that still has it on the books. Under this law, school districts laying off teachers because of budget cuts must lay them off in reverse-seniority order, only looking at the date when they started teaching in their current district, even if this means letting some of the most effective teachers go, and putting our children in classrooms with teachers who have been ineffective for years. Newark Public Schools have only avoided laying off some of our best teachers in recent years by spending millions of dollars to keep ineffective senior teachers on the payroll, even when no school would hire them.

As a parent, this law is a slap in the face. It’s unfair to the inspiring teachers who help educate our children, but whose jobs are still on the line simply because they haven’t been teaching as long as some of their colleagues. But worst of all, it jeopardizes our children’s future by allowing them to miss out on a year or more of their education, stuck in classrooms with teachers who will not help them learn and grow.

No matter how much money we make or the color of our skin, our children are entitled to a quality education. But if Newark has to lay off teachers according to “last in, first out,” not all children will get the education they deserve.

That’s why I filed a lawsuit last week, along with five other Newark mothers, asking the court to strike down New Jersey’s unfair teacher layoff law.

I know that budget cuts and staff layoffs are never easy. Decisions about people’s jobs are serious — you’re dealing with people’s lives. When my oldest daughter was in preschool, I served as the parent representative on the board of her Head Start program, and we had to preside over staff layoffs. It was difficult. I have lost a job myself, and as a single mother, it’s devastating.

But Newark Public Schools are in serious trouble. Gov. Chris Christie has proposed a school budget plan that would cut nearly 70 percent of state funding for our district. Newark Public Schools cannot survive the governor’s education-funding plan, and Newark children don’t deserve this attack on their education.

Our elected officials are trying to save money at the expense of our children’s education, especially poor and minority children. It’s not right, and those of us who have filed a lawsuit to challenge the teacher layoff law are also fighting the excessive and unfair school budget cuts proposed by Christie.

For too long, parents have not been allowed to sit at the table when major decisions are made about our children’s schools. We’re not given the information we need to understand the conditions in our classrooms, and whether our children are learning the skills they need to succeed in life. I’m tired of being excluded from the conversation.

When politicians fail us, we the parents will always fight for the best for our sons and daughters. Especially as our city faces staggering cuts to school budgets, our children deserve the best possible teachers. Plain and simple, the state’s “last in, first out” teacher layoff law stands in the way of this. As parents, we can’t afford to blindly follow rules set by politicians who are playing politics with our children’s chances at success.