05/18/2011 06:52 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2011

Teachers Union, NAACP Sue New York City Education Officials Over School Closures

NEW YORK -- The battle between New York City's teachers union and its school officials reached its latest crescendo in the form of a lawsuit Wednesday.

The United Federation of Teachers, joined by the NAACP and several public officials, filed suit against the New York City Department of Education on Wednesday in attempt to halt the city's closure of 22 schools and to prevent charter schools from using space in buildings that house public schools.

Newly-installed New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott had fighting words for his plan's assailants. "Right now the UFT and the NAACP are denying our students quality options," he said at a press conference Wednesday.

Walcott added the suit "outraged" him, because as he sees it, the UFT and the NAACP are using it to keep failing schools open. He promised to fight "tooth and nail" in court.

New York City schools comprise the country's largest school district. Wednesday's suit targets efforts to close low-performing schools and share spaces of public schools with charter schools, two of the city's marquee reform initiatives that echo components of broader education policy issues on a national level. The U.S. Department of Education, under Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama administration, emphasizes a choice between public and charter schools and an increased focus on low-performing schools.

Last year, the UFT filed a similar suit that successfully kept 19 New York City schools open. The union won that case on the basis of the DOE's failure to satisfy regulations agreed upon in 2009 as a modifier to legislation that gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg continued control of the city's schools.

A settlement required the DOE to support the schools the UFT saved, committing the city to working on improving their performance instead of closing them. This year's suit alleges that the DOE did not provide those resources, instead deciding to move forward with more closures.

"Clearly the Department of Education has not learned its lesson," UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a press conference Wednesday.

Since the city's loss in court last year, Walcott said New York has worked "in full compliance" with the law. "What they're trying to do is protect adults with disregard to our students," he said of the new suit.

Though Walcott says he and Mulgrew have a good working relationship, the lawsuit drives yet another wedge between the union and school leaders.

In light of looming teacher layoffs, Bloomberg has been lobbying to end the practice of firing the most recently-hired teachers first, a tightly held union right. Disagreements also recently plagued the negotiation of the details of agreements the UFT and city reached to help secure federal Race to the Top funds.

And earlier this week, the umbrella organization that encompasses New York State's teachers unions said it would consider suing the state after the Board of Regents voted to enact teacher evaluations that tie student performance on state tests to performance reviews.

Last year, State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) signed on to the union's suit. He did the same this year because "it's a question of educational justice," he said. "The city seems to be closing schools with an agenda to replace them, in some cases, with charter schools and not providing schools with the opportunity to improve," he told The Huffington Post.

This time around, UFT and NAACP allege that the DOE did not fulfill its promise to support those schools before closing them and did not abide by a law that required them to specify the logistics of all space-sharing arrangements and seek the state education commissioner's approval before deciding to close several schools.

The UFT and NAACP, according to the suit, condemn what they call the DOE's:

dogmatic effort to ... short-circuit community participation in school governance, (ii) evade its responsibility to assist struggling schools before summarily seeking their closure often to improperly make way for charter schools, and (iii) co-locate other favored programs without regard to squeezing out the students in "traditional" public schools from any fair allocation of school resources.

Walcott responded first with a harshly-worded statement and then by appearing at a press conference with parents and principals of the charter schools whose space assignments the lawsuit seeks to block.

"We totally disagree with the union," he said. He declined to address specific complaints, saying that he was cautious because the suit named him as a defendant. "We'll be filing our papers once we see their exact papers. ... We have definitely lived up to our agreement as far as supporting these schools."

Walcott condemned the timing of the suit, saying that it throws the students already registered to attend the targeted charter schools into confusion. "It is something that boggles my mind," he said. "It is outrageous for them ... to hold hostage 70,000 students."

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor in the New York City Department of Education, said it's just politics.

"From the UFT's perspective, they're engaged in a war," he said. "When the other side fires on you, you fire back. This is their effort to do that."

But to Ken Cohen, regional director of New York State Conference of the NAACP, it's a matter of equity. "The NAACP has worked feverishly to serve the children of New York City," he said in a statement. "With the focus on education reform we find there has been a rush to judge and condemn schools and not enough effort to provide the quality education that the original case sought."