Partnership for Educational Justice Director Talks Last In, First Out

The NJEA wants to dismiss a lawsuit that would end last in, first out layoff rules for teachers when districts must make budget cuts. In a lawsuit, six Newark parents say experience and performance should count more than seniority and tenure. The Partnership for Educational Justice supports this lawsuit. Executive Director Ralia Polechronis sat down with NJTV News Correspondent Michael Hill to talk about this.

Hill: Ralia, thank you for joining us.

Polechronis: Thank you for having me.

Hill: You’re welcome. Ten states have this kind of law — why is this unconstitutional?

Polechronis: Laws like these — seniority based layoff laws, also known as LIFO — violate a child’s constitutional guarantee to an adequate education. Here in New Jersey it’s especially important, because we know there are districts, like Newark, where when a law like this is implemented, effective teachers are the ones that stand to lose their jobs.

Hill: In a case like this, when you start talking about effective teachers versus non-effective teachers, what happens when the decision has to be made? What happens to the educational process — how are students actually harmed in a process like this?

Polechronis: Sure, well there are a few things we know about schools and classrooms and teaching. Teaching is the most important, in-school component, to a child’s education and that makes a lot of sense. You need great teachers for students to learn. You need teachers who are engaging and connecting with kids and who are really taking a pride in that work and so many of them are. A law like this impacts the student’s learning, because it doesn’t take into account how good the teacher is based on the day-in and day-out basis and only considers how long they’ve been teaching.

Hill: The Newark Teachers Union says — about the comment like that — these folks who are tenured, they’ve been through a certain process and if the process determines that they’re no longer an effective teacher, the process has a way of dealing with them. You say?

Polechronis: So, that’s not entirely what we are talking about here. What we’re talking about in LIFO are terminations and layoffs that have to happen only during budget cuts. So that process, that dismissal process, isn’t really at play. We’re talking about a situation when the district is in such dire financial constraints and is having such a problem figuring out its budget that they have to go to teachers, they have to go to laying them off and they have to make that decision, according to the law, by the level of seniority instead of thinking about the great teachers that are in the classroom and that should stay there.

Hill: What gives you confidence that the lawsuit will be effective overturning this law if it, perhaps? Do you think it will?

Polechronis: Well I think a lawsuit like this is just absolutely necessary when we’re talking about issues like teaching, teachers, schools and education. This has played out in the Legislature and it hasn’t worked to the benefit of children because there are lobbies that are involved. Kids are not there, kids are not in the Legislature, they’re not able to speak their voices and so the lawsuit is putting these six parents on a pedestal, giving them a place to speak their voice and tell everybody that these kinds of laws are hurting their kids.

Hill: The teachers’ union looks at this and says this is sort of a re-hashing of Gov. Christie’s failed attempt to challenge Abbott in court recently. What do you say to that?

Polechronis: No, I don’t think it’s anything like that, at all. This lawsuit, as one of the very first reasons as it’s distinguishable, was filed by parents. These are parents who decided that these laws are hurting their kids and they wanted to make a stand. It’s not the governor making a political decision.

Hill: Shouldn’t seniority and tenure count for something though?

Polechronis: Sure, sure I think that seniority is something, experience is something that districts should consider, but districts and superintendents should not have their hands tied. They shouldn’t be told, “You must put blinders on and not even think about the teacher that’s doing an excellent job in the classroom.”

Hill: You released a video last week and the video talks about, 85 percent of the teachers in Newark, who could fall under this rule and lose their jobs — there’s 85 percent they’ve been rated by their principals as effective or very effective. Why did you release the video?

Polechronis: So this video was really meant to inform, educate and motivate parents to think about this issue, very critically and to think about how these kinds of laws, that frequently people don’t know too much about, are impacting their kids on a daily basis. We want people to watch this and feel inspired and empowered to learn more about this issue.

Hill: In this particular fight, who’s involved? You’re supporting the parents, but you’re not actually part of the lawsuit — why is that?

Polechronis: So, this lawsuit is brought by the six incredibly brave mothers who want to protect their kids — they’re the ones whose interests are at stake and they’re the one who are driving the litigation.

Hill: Are you guys involved in litigation perhaps in New York state or another state along those lines in this issue?

Polechronis: Litigation like this has been brought by parents in other states, in Minnesota and in New York. New Jersey was the third case like this. Partnership for Educational Justice supports these parents who want to bring these issues to light and fight these kinds of political issues in court room.

Hill: Have those cases been resolved in the other states?

Polechronis: They’ve not been resolved, yet.

Hill: All right, Ralia Polechronis with the Partnership for Educational Justice, there’s a hearing on April 13 as to whether to dismiss this lawsuit. Thank you for joining us.

Polechronis: Thank you for having me.

Hill: You’re welcome.