N.J. parents expected to file suit over state's teacher layoff rules

NJ.com- A group of parents from New Jersey's largest school district is going to court to fight a state law that forces districts to layoff teachers based on seniority rather than performance.

With the backing of a national education reform group, six parents from Newark Public Schools filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the state's last-in-first-out (LIFO) rule for teacher layoffs.

The statute forbids districts from considering any factors other than seniority when laying off teachers due to budget cuts, said Kent Yalowitz, an attorney representing the parents. By enforcing that law, state and local officials violate students' right to a "thorough and efficient" education, which is guaranteed under the state constitution, he said. 

"We know that quality matters," Yalowitz said. "To say you have to ignore quality in favor of seniority is totally irrational." 

The LIFO rule amounts to "dooming kids who are trying to learn," Yalowitz added. 

The suit follows similar complaints filed in Minnesota and New York, and, like those cases, is organized by Partnership for Educational Justice, a New York-based education reform group founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown. 

The state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, quickly dismissed the lawsuit.  

"This is an out-of-state group coming into New Jersey to try to impose its political agenda," NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said. "Without these kinds of protections, politicians could interfere in decisions about who is allowed to keep their job, and that would be a disaster for New Jersey public schools." 

In the legal challenge, the parents ask the court to declare the LIFO statute unconstitutional and to order an injunction against last-in-first-out layoffs in Newark and similar school districts. 

New Jersey's LIFO rule has long been in the crosshairs of Gov. Chris Christie, but opposition from teachers unions kept state lawmakers from changing it when the state passed its bipartisan tenure reform act in 2012. 

Unable to lay off veteran teachers with performance issues, Newark Public Schools spent millions in recent years on a pool of "Educators Without Placement." Those teachers were retained and used as substitutes or given duties in the central office but intentionally kept out of the classroom as regular teachers. 

The district's former superintendent twice tried and failed to get a waiver from the state to avoid the LIFO rules during budget crunches. 

"We believe the case in New Jersey is quite strong," said Ralia Polechronis, executive director of Partnership for Educational Justice.

Fareeah Harris, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said she was surprised when she found that her two children in elementary school didn't seem happy with their school in previous years. 

She considers the atmosphere in the classroom part of the problem, she said. 

"I don't feel LIFO should be in place, basing layoffs on last in and first out," Harris said. "What should be in place is, what teachers are getting the most results?" 

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