"I deserve that $5,000 bonus," the teacher yelled.
"Well if you're such a good teacher then why didn't my boy pass that exam?" countered a parent.
What was the hullabaloo about? Several parents had discovered that they and their children were being sued by fourth grade teacher Sandra Wettfeld. In a legal maneuver widely acknowledged to be the first of its kind, the New Jersey educator filed suit against five of her former students and their families for loss of income. The basis for Wettfeld's lawsuit was explained that afternoon at the law offices of Slaughter & Hem.
Lawrence Slaughter, who specializes in educational law, described Ms. Wettfeld's case, "Basically, we are suing because under the Newark Teachers Union contract, Ms. Wettfeld can earn an extra $5,000 if she is rated as "Highly Effective" which is largely based on her students' test scores. Several of her students did not perform as they should have which resulted in her losing that bonus money. So she's looking to be compensated by those students and their families who failed to live up to expectations."
Wettfeld explained, "No one teaches to the test better than I do. So I knew I would get some bonus money when the scores came back." She paused to wipe a tear from her eye, "I stayed late, wrote great lessons and offered extra help but I've got students who don't come to school regularly. Students who don't sit still because they're hungry or distracted. Students who don't do their homework or go to bed on time. And those things are not my fault; they're the kids' fault and the parents' fault. Why should I suffer?"
Though not yet named as defendants, Slaughter's law partner May Hem is researching the viability of adding the school district and teachers union to the lawsuit. "Let's face it, we're going after the families because their kids failed the tests but if you want to get justice, you have to go after the clowns who thought this type of compensation was just.
Although the school district and mayor's office both refused to comment on the lawsuit, Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso called it, "a step in the wrong direction." Addressing the media on Friday, Mr. Del Grosso said, "Parents, teachers and students should not have an adversarial relationship but once money is introduced, well that has a way of changing things." Asked if he should have thought of that before agreeing to the contract that ties teacher income to student test performance, Del Grosso commented, "I think some things are unforeseeable."
Perhaps less unforeseeable, the slew of virtually identical lawsuits that have been filed in other states since Wettfeld's press conference. Though the legal ground for such cases is still swampy, in just a few days eight similar suits have been filed in Washington D.C. and Oregon where merit pay systems are also in place. Legal pundits are watching to see the outcome of these cases with great interest. Slaughter put it this way, "We understand this case is charting new territory which of course carries some risks. However, this territory has the potential to be quite lucrative."
Back at Elma Street Elementary, parent and named defendant Sam Oliver seemed less annoyed than embarrassed and frightened as he looked over legal documents, "Our family had a tough year. I lost my job and well maybe we weren't as academically-focused at home as we could have been but... we just don't have this kind of money. I don't even know if I can afford a lawyer."
Michelle Rhee's organization StudentsFirst released this bold statement in reference to the suit, "To paraphrase Arne Duncan's iconic quote about the education opportunities Hurricane Katrina created, we believe that tying teacher income to student scores was the best thing to happen in Newark schools because strife creates opportunity."
Interested in how we came to write this? Go to: The Newark Teachers Contract: My Final Word and Test Scores and the Newark Teachers Contract and DC Program Ties Teacher Salaries To Student Test Scores and Oregon Schools Begin to Tie Teacher Pay to Student Test Scores