A massive decades-long lawsuit against New York City over the use of two teaching certification tests is winding to a conclusion, with nearly $660 million and pension benefits in damages awarded to plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit claiming the tests were discriminatory against Black and Latino teachers and prevented them from achieving full seniority, pay and benefits.
The city could be further liable for hundreds of millions of dollars more in damages yet to be determined, with an estimated maximum payout of about $1.8 billion for the 4,700 plaintiffs in the Gulino v Board of Education class action suit — in what city officials say is the highest amount of damages that New York City has ever paid.
In 1996, three teachers filed the lawsuit against the city and state education departments, claiming that the mandated certification tests—the National Teacher Examination (NTE) and its successor the Liberal Arts & Sciences Test (LAST)—had a “disparate impact on African-American and Latino test takers.”
White test-takers passed the tests 83.7% of the time while Black test takers passed at 43.9% and Latino test takers passed at 40.3% of the time, according to the complaint.
No matter what subject a New York City teacher taught—whether it was preschool, special education, or athletics—they were required to pass these certification tests, which have been described as covering “scientific, mathematical, and technological processes; historical and social scientific awareness; artistic expression and the humanities; communication and research skills; and written analysis and expression.”
“The test obviously didn't test anything relevant to the jobs that people were doing or being hired to do. But the city used it in many cases to demote people,” said Joshua Sohn, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer.
Teachers who didn’t pass were paid less, denied full pension, and many were relegated to substitute status, according to a court brief filed with the Second Circuit of Appeals in 2007: “Even though they never achieved a passing score on the LAST, many teachers continued teaching full-time in the City’s schools for many years, albeit at salaries well below that of their certified colleagues. And those teachers who ultimately achieved a passing score, remained at a salary step level far below that of their colleagues with equivalent seniority in the City school system. In practice then, the City and State used the LAST not to determine whether teachers should be allowed to teach, but rather to determine their level of compensation and benefits.”
The state eventually stopped requiring the tests as part of teacher certification process after a district court found that the LAST had not been properly validated.
“It is time to bring this longstanding case to a close and we are pleased the parties have agreed on a schedule for payments,” said Nicholas Paolucci, spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, in a statement. The damages are based on calculations of backpay, he said.
The judgments determining specific damages for the first round of individual hearings for nearly 350 plaintiffs became final in mid-September after the city declined to appeal, Sohn said.
The state was dismissed from the lawsuit in 2006, leaving the city solely liable as the employer under federal discrimination laws. Still, city officials said the tests were developed by the state which then required that New York City administer these certification tests or “it would have faced State enforcement action and stood to lose billions in state education funding. (The city) had no choice but to comply with the state’s certification requirement,” according to the Law Department.
The impact of these tests meant that “generations of Black and brown New York City public school teachers, they were sort of denied access to the profession,” Sohn said.
The teachers who never passed the certification tests “have been sort of per diem teachers for the last 20 years, you know— making exponentially less money and having no benefits, no health insurance, no pension, no nothing from the city, but still teaching more or less full time,” Sohn added. “And others who wanted to be teachers their whole lives found that they couldn't do it and had to change careers.”