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Teacher Tenure Is Challenged Again in a Minnesota Lawsuit
Opening a new front in the assault on teacher tenure, a group of parents backed by wealthy philanthropists served notice to defendants on Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s job protections for teachers, as well as the state’s rules governing which teachers are laid off as a result of budget cuts.Similar to cases in California and New York, the plaintiffs, who are filing the lawsuit in district court in Ramsey County in St. Paul, argue that the state’s tenure and layoff laws disproportionately harm poor, minority children because, they say, the most ineffective teachers are more likely to be assigned to public schools with high concentrations of those children
Teacher Tenure Is Challenged Again in a Minnesota Lawsuit

Opening a new front in the assault on teacher tenure, a group of parents backed by wealthy philanthropists served notice to defendants on Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging Minnesota’s job protections for teachers, as well as the state’s rules governing which teachers are laid off as a result of budget cuts.

Similar to cases in California and New York, the plaintiffs, who are filing the lawsuit in district court in Ramsey County in St. Paul, argue that the state’s tenure and layoff laws disproportionately harm poor, minority children because, they say, the most ineffective teachers are more likely to be assigned to public schools with high concentrations of those children.

In the lawsuit, parents of children in public schools across Minnesota argue that the state’s tenure laws, which grant teachers job protections after three years on the job, deprive students of “their fundamental right to a thorough and efficient education” under the state’s Constitution. The suit also argues that state laws that protect the most veteran teachers in the event of layoffs can result in better teachers losing their jobs simply because they have fewer years in the classroom.

As in California and New York, the suit is likely to be fought fiercely by teachers’ unions and other groups that say teacher job protections do not cause educational inequity or lead to underperformers remaining in the classroom. On the contrary, they say, tenure offers teachers protection from arbitrary or politically motivated firings.

And at a time of teacher shortages in some parts of the country, advocates of tenure say it is one of the few incentives that districts can offer when recruiting educators or persuading them to stay.

Opponents of such litigation also say public schools have more pressing problems than tenure protections, like inequitable funding, insufficient preparation for new teachers and a lack of coordinated support for children who face myriad challenges as a result of poverty.

“Minnesota has some of the most hard-working and talented teachers in the nation, and we are committed to ensuring every student has a dedicated and competent teacher,” said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s commissioner of education.

“We also have rigorous laws that protect due process for teachers and that, when followed, provide school administrators and school boards with the authority to remove teachers. We are reviewing the lawsuit, and are unable to comment further until that review is complete.”

Changing tenure rules “is a piece of the puzzle” in improving public schools, said Daniel Weisberg, the chief executive of TNTP, formerly the New Teacher Project, an educational policy nonprofit.

“Just as doing a better job of retaining your irreplaceable teachers is a piece of the puzzle and having a positive school culture that teachers want to work in,” he said. “These are not mutually exclusive.”

Two years ago, in a landmark ruling considered a significant setback for teachers’ unions, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck down five state statutes connected to tenure and seniority in layoffs. This year, the case, known as Vergara v. California, moved to an appeals court. The New York case has yet to go to trial, although a judge has twice declined the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case.

The Minnesota lawsuit names the state, Gov. Mark Dayton, the state Education Department and its commissioner as defendants. The case is being supported by Partnership for Education Justice, a New York-based advocacy group that receives its primary funding from the foundations of the Walton family, the founders of Walmart, and the Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad. Students for Education Reform, a group that also receives funding from the Broad and the Walton Family Foundations, is also backing the suit.

Tenure, which grants teachers extensive due process rights when administrators seek to dismiss them, is one of the bedrock job protections for public schoolteachers in the United States.

In Minnesota, the plaintiffs say that in practice, tenure is all but a lifetime guarantee of employment. Administrators, the lawsuit argues, run into overly burdensome procedures that make it virtually impossible to fire ineffective teachers.

What’s more, the plaintiffs say such teachers are often assigned to schools with the most disadvantaged students, including schools where the vast majority of students are minorities, while teachers with seniority are able to request placements in schools with more affluent student populations.

“These laws have the effect of poorly performing, ineffective teachers staying in the classroom for years on end,” said Jesse Stewart, a lawyer who will be arguing the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. “You have teachers who are demonstrably ineffective teaching students who need the best that’s out there,” Mr. Stewart added.

In one example cited in the legal complaint, teachers at a school in Minneapolis where nearly all the students identify as minorities and are eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches had the lowest average performance ratings in the district.

The suit also tackles the rules by which teachers are laid off strictly by seniority during financial downturns. Tiffini Flynn Forslund, one of the named plaintiffs and the mother of a 17-year-old high school junior in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, said her older daughter’s beloved fifth-grade teacher was laid off during budget cuts because he had less seniority than other teachers in the school.

“It didn’t make sense to me that you would let go of a good teacher,” said Ms. Forslund, who worked with other parents to try to get the Legislature to change the state’s tenure and layoff laws.

In 2012, the state House and Senate passed a bill that would have eliminated the so-called last in, first out rules for layoffs in schools. Mr. Dayton, a Democrat, vetoed the bill.

Judge Rejects Teacher Tenure for California

LOS ANGELES — A California judge ruled Tuesday that teacher tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the State Constitution and violated their civil rights. The decision hands teachers’ unions a major defeat in a landmark case, one that could radically alter how California teachers are hired and fired and prompt challenges to tenure laws in other states.

“Substantial evidence presented makes it clear to this court that the challenged statutes disproportionately affect poor and/or minority students,” Judge Rolf M. Treu of Los Angeles Superior Court wrote in the ruling. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

The decision, which was enthusiastically endorsed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, brings a close to the first chapter of the case, Vergara v. California, in which a group of student plaintiffs backed by a Silicon Valley millionaire argued that state tenure laws had deprived them of a decent education by leaving bad teachers in place.

Both sides expect the case to generate more like it in cities and states around the country. David Welch, a Silicon Valley technology magnate, spent several million dollars to create the organization that brought the Vergara case to court — Students Matter — and paid for a team of high-profile lawyers, including Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., who helped win a Supreme Court decision striking down California’s same-sex marriage ban. While the next move is still unclear, the group is considering filing lawsuits in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Idaho and Kansas as well as other states with powerful unions where legislatures have defeated attempts to change teacher tenure laws.

The teachers’ unions said Tuesday that they planned to appeal. A spokesman for the state’s attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, said she was reviewing the ruling with Gov. Jerry Brown and state education officials before making a decision on any plans for an appeal.

“We believe the judge fell victim to the anti-union, anti-teacher rhetoric and one of America’s finest corporate law firms that set out to scapegoat teachers for the real problems that exist in public education,” said Joshua Pechthalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, one of two unions that represent roughly 400,000 educators in the state. “There are real problems in our schools, but this decision in no way helps us move the ball forward.”

In his sharply worded 16-page ruling, Judge Treu compared the Vergara case to the historic desegregation battle of Brown v. Board of Education, saying that the earlier case addressed “a student’s fundamental right to equality of the educational experience,” and that this case involved applying that principle to the “quality of the educational experience.”

He agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that California’s current laws make it impossible to remove the system’s numerous low-performing and incompetent teachers, because the tenure system assures them a job essentially for life; that seniority rules requiring the newest teachers to be laid off first were harmful; and that granting tenure to teachers after only two years on the job was farcical, offering far too little time for a fair assessment of the teacher’s skills.

Further, Judge Treu said, the least effective teachers are disproportionately assigned to schools filled with low-income and minority students. The situation violates those students’ constitutional right to an equal education, he determined. It is believed to be the first legal opinion to assert that the quality of an education is as important as mere access to schools or sufficient funding.

“All sides to this litigation agree that competent teachers are a critical, if not the most important, component of success of a child’s in-school educational experience,” Judge Treu wrote in his ruling. “There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms.”

The right to an education is written into every state constitution. But lawyers for the states and teachers’ unions said that overturning such laws would erode necessary protections that stop school administrators from making unfair personnel decisions. They also argued that a vast majority of teachers in the state’s schools are competent and providing students with all the necessary tools to learn. More important factors than teachers, they argued, are social and economic inequalities as well as the funding levels of public schools.

Critics of existing rules hailed the decision as a monumental victory and urged lawmakers to make immediate changes to laws. Mr. Duncan issued a statement saying the ruling could help millions of students who are hurt by existing teacher tenure laws.

“My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift,” Mr. Duncan said. “Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation.”

In essence, Judge Treu ruled that a quality education is guaranteed for all students in the state — which relies on effective teachers — and that anything less undermines the quality and violates the equal protection clause in the state constitution.

In his ruling, Judge Treu added his voice to the political debate that has divided educators for years. School superintendents in large cities across the country — including Los Angeles, New York and Washington — have railed against laws that essentially grant teachers permanent employment status. They say such job protections are harmful to students and are merely an anachronism.

Three states and the District of Columbia have eliminated tenure, but similar efforts have repeatedly failed elsewhere, including California. Under state law here, administrators seeking to dismiss a teacher they deem incompetent must follow a complicated procedure that typically drags on for months, if not years. Teachers are eligible for tenure after 18 months, and layoffs must be determined by seniority, a process known as “last in, first out.”

Judge Treu, who was appointed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, wrote that “both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one) disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.” He added that current dismissal statutes are “so complex, time consuming and expensive as to make an effective, efficient yet fair dismissal of a grossly ineffective teacher illusory.”

He also had harsh words for the layoff system that protects veteran teachers without regard to any evaluation. “The logic of this position is unfathomable and therefore constitutionally unsupportable,” he wrote.

Judge Treu is expected to issue a final opinion on the case by the end of the month after taking comments from both sides, but for now he ordered that the existing laws remain in place while the case makes its way through the appeal process.

John Deasy, superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District, who testified for the plaintiffs, said he hoped the decision would be a rallying cry for an immediate response from state lawmakers, who have been reluctant to make any changes to tenure laws.

“Every day that these laws remain in effect represents another opportunity denied,” he said. He echoed language used in desegregation rulings: “With all deliberate speed. I don’t think we need to watch for two generations more to fix this.”

In New York City, tenure by estoppel is a way to get tenure that is no longer in forced.

The New York State Teacher Tenure Unit runs the teacher trials and wants all procedural due process rights overlooked in order to get "bad" (i.e. "tenured") teachers out of the NYC Department of Education.

This is not new.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation