Newark Mom on LIFO Lawsuit: "I'm Just a Parent Who Wants To Make A Change"

Earlier this month, a short animated video was released to the public explaining New Jersey’s quality-blind “last in, first out” (LIFO) teacher layoff statute.  As one of ten remaining states in the country that mandates LIFO, the law requires school districts to lay off teachers based only on the date when they started teaching in the district, with the newest teachers losing their jobs first.

By forbidding administrators from considering classroom effectiveness, this law runs counter to the overwhelming research consistently showing that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning.

In November, six Newark parents filed a lawsuit in Mercer County Superior Court called H.G. v. Harrington that asserts that New Jersey’s LIFO law violates students’ constitutional right to a thorough and efficient education. 

After viewing the video, I reached out to one of the parents, Wendy S., one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Here are my questions and her answers.

Why did you join this lawsuit? What motivated you to join this effort?

Having gone to school myself in the Newark Public Schools, I remember a lot of teachers who seemed like they were just waiting to retire. Throughout the years I would hear things about seniority, and I noticed myself that good, newer teachers wouldn’t always stick around. So when I found out about the LIFO law– that the last ones in are the first ones out – that never sat well with me. I saw firsthand that our schools employed teachers who had the potential to be great for our kids but would be laid off first..

What has your experience been like so far as a parent of kids in the Newark Public Schools?

I know that Newark has been working a lot on teacher assessments and grading the teachers – I think that’s great. I’m against teacher layoffs, but if they have to happen, I think these assessments should be the precursor. It shouldn’t be based on how many years – it’s the quality of your work, not the quantity of years that you’ve been here. And with the risk of budget woes, all these good effective teachers are at risk. I have two children currently in elementary school – I want the best teachers out there for them, not necessarily the ones who’ve been here the longest.

What has it been like to be part of the plaintiff group in this lawsuit? 

It’s good. It gives a voice to what’s been going on. There’s an urban myth out there that makes it seem like Newark parents aren’t involved or aren’t aware of what’s going on compared to other parents in the suburbs or other districts – and that’s just not true. Once you’re out there you see that parents do care and parents want what’s best for their kids. It’s amazing how many parents go through different things and are still willing to do what it takes to make a change.

Lawsuits like yours have been called “anti-teacher” or a “corporate conspiracy” by some critics. What are your thoughts when you hear that? 

I have had some people ask me why I’m doing this and I have to explain to them what it’s about. It’s mind-boggling – these conspiracies – I’m for the highest quality education. That’s my main concern. I just explain to people what it’s really about and then they see it differently. People will ask me what my motives are, who’s “behind the lawsuit,” who’s really influencing us. And I say no one, it’s just parents who want to make a change. I feel that this is something that is overall good for all of Newark and all kids in school.

When people automatically assume that I’m anti-teacher and that we’re attacking unions and what teachers have worked so hard for, I tell them that’s just not what we are about. I respond and say, “Listen, at the end of the day we need to have high-quality teachers teaching our kids.” It’s not about somebody’s pension or how long you’ve been teaching. If you’ve been teaching for 20 years and you’re good at what you’re doing, I don’t see a problem, we should keep that teacher too. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re effective and you’re good – you should be rewarded, not penalized.

One example I give them is that one bad apple makes it bad for everybody. In any profession if somebody’s not effective, they’re not doing their job, they’re not putting out results, it makes everybody look bad. And then everybody is put in the same boat when people say that Newark teachers are bad. And then good teachers who are newer are at risk of leaving. Then what?

This lawsuit is pretty historic – nothing like this has ever been done in New Jersey. Do you consider yourself a trailblazer? 

It’s just mind-boggling. I ponder why this hasn’t been done before. We know it’s a problem. So, I guess we are trailblazing. But it makes you wonder what politicians were really thinking about when they wrote this law  - do they care about the kids?

Do you have any words of encouragement for parents who are concerned about their kids’ education?

Be involved. Find out about policies and procedures. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to challenge people. In my case, since it was about my kids and the quality of the education they’re getting, I feel like I have a right to know about the policies that impact this. Every school has a parent engagement meeting and so I would encourage other parents to get involved in that. Don’t feel intimidated. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, or you’re doubtful, look into it. See how you can make a change.

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