AMAC Exclusive – By David Lewis Schaefer
Thousands of former Black and Latino teachers in New York City stand to collect an astonishing $1.8 billion in damages after the city stopped fighting a decades-long discrimination lawsuit which alleged that a licensing test that teachers were formerly required to pass was biased. But while the evidence of such discrimination remains dubious, students in New York City schools have continued to underachieve at an alarming rate, even as many flee the public school system entirely.
Between 1990 and 2014, New York State required all public school teachers to pass a Liberal Arts and Sciences Test in order to maintain their teaching license. In 1996, a group of minority teachers and prospective educators filed a lawsuit to abolish the testing requirement, citing a disparity in passage rates between white and minority test-takers. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “at times, over 90% of white test takers passed, compared with fewer than 62% of Black test takers and 55% of Latinos.”
A turning point for those bringing the lawsuit was a 2012 ruling by Judge Kimba Wood (who had once achieved celebrity as one of President Bill Clinton’s failed nominees for Attorney General). Wood found that the licensing test violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act since city officials failed to demonstrate a direct correlation between performance on the test and classroom performance, as measured by “concrete metrics.” In other words, Wood argued, requiring teachers to know the information asked about on the test – much of which, it can be safely assumed, high school graduates are expected to know themselves – is not necessary for teachers to perform their duties in the classroom. Therefore, the disparity in performance on the test amounted to arbitrary racial discrimination against minority teachers who did not pass it.
While the state subsequently scrapped the original test in favor of a simpler one (the legality of which may now also be open to challenge), Wood’s judgment paved the way for thousands of minority teachers who previously failed the test, in some cases multiple times, to sue for damages from New York City.
Under the settlement just reached, the city has already given payouts totaling $835 million, with up to another billion potentially in play. One teacher cited by the Journal was Sylvia Alvarez, who will receive $1.1 million after failing the test ten times and ultimately losing her job. Another former teacher, Theodore Regis, who lost his teaching job after failing the test five times, “earned” himself a payout of $1.2 million.
What to make of this outcome? First of all, as the standard axiom of social science holds, correlation does not necessarily entail causation.” And this principle is surely relevant here. The mere fact that white teachers passed at a higher rate than minority teachers does not in itself prove that the city was discriminating against the latter. Objective observers might also note that it hardly seems arbitrary to expect those charged with educating youngsters in our public schools to demonstrate a basic knowledge of essential academic subjects.
But above all, what this outcome indicates is an utter disregard for what should be the foremost, in fact the sole, priority of a public school system: the academic achievement of students themselves.
By this standard, New York City public schools have been failing miserably for decades. As far back as the 2018-19 academic year, per-pupil spending in the city was $28,004, by far the highest among the nation’s 100 largest school systems. By 2022, according to the New York Post, it had risen to $34,900 per pupil, a growth rate of more than twice the inflation figure from 2000-2021. Yet parents have been pulling their kids from the city’s public schools in droves, and not only because some are emigrating to other states like Florida that offer lower taxes and a reduction of the excessive masking and lockdown requirements that the city imposed at the behest of the teachers’ unions. While Mayor Eric Adams has remarked that city schools are suffering from “a massive hemorrhaging of students,” with an anticipated drop in enrollment of 28,000 this fall, the teachers’ unions are firmly opposing even a modest reduction in the education budget – meaning that per pupil spending is expected to go even higher.
As an example of the waste to which New York City’s education budget is prone, New York Post columnist Karol Marokowicz cites the recent attendance by Schools Chancellor David Banks and more than 50 other staffers at a conference “at a swanky hotel near Universal Studios in Orlando.” In contrast to public school students, who had to Zoom for their education for over a year, “the grownups need to meet up near theme parks to discuss their education plan.”
Meanwhile, however, students in another form of public schools – charter schools – are often flourishing, despite receiving much less government funding. As former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently observed, not only do charters average higher math and reading scores than “traditional” public schools, “research has found that the benefits are especially pronounced for Black, Latino, and low-income students.” Eighth graders in New York’s largest charter-school network, Success Academy, recently excelled in four of the five Regent exams that are required for graduation from high school. The students’ overall pass rates on all the exams were a stunning 93% or higher.
Unfortunately, entry into charter schools in New York City, as in many other cities and states across the country, is limited: applicants need to win a lottery to gain admission. (As of 2019, over 50,000 children were on wait lists seeking admission to charter schools in the city.) New York State, at the behest of teachers’ unions, has imposed a cap prohibiting the opening of new charters. Despite the cap, charter school enrollment has grown by 9 per cent since the start of the pandemic, while private Catholic school enrollment is rising as well.
Those who defend the invalidation of the teacher test because of the differing success rates achieved by different demographics purport to be acting in the pursuit of social justice. But isn’t the real social-justice issue that of getting the best qualified teachers into public school classrooms? For anyone genuinely concerned with advancing the fortunes of every student, including racial and ethnic minorities, surely providing them the highest quality education possible should be the utmost concern.
If public schools are prohibited by judges and union contracts from achieving that goal, the only remedies lie in empowering parents and students with more choice in their children’s education. As any parent knows, it doesn’t matter what gender, race, or religion a teacher is. It just matters how well they prepare their students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed – knowledge and skills teachers themselves need to possess in order to impart them to students. That, and that alone, should be the most important measuring stick for educators.
David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross.