Union Takes Michigan Tenure Fight to Court

Last summer’s amendment to the Michigan Teacher Tenure Act is being challenged in a federal lawsuit by a local teachers union. The suit alleges that the amendment is unconstitutional.

Traditionally layoffs in the teaching profession have followed the typical union ‘last in, first out’ procedures; however the amendment barred school districts from using seniority as the determining factor.

Michael Lee is the attorney representing the Southfield Education Association and claims that the district didn’t follow its own procedures for recalling teachers after a round of layoffs last summer. That specific case was filed last month, while the recent federal lawsuit attacks the legality of the amendment itself.

Lee said the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized tenure as a property right in cases that go back as far as 1978.

“Once you pass legislation that says ignore tenure and people are laid off as a result, you have taken away that property right, and you have done that without due process,”

The lawsuit is sure to be followed with interest by other states looking closely at current tenure rules — among them, Minnesota, where the senate recently passed a bill to allow schools to make layoff decisions on the basis of performance rather than seniority.

Those opposed to tenure changes often call it an attack on experienced teachers and fear the changes allow them to be replaced by cheaper, inexperienced teachers.

“I looked to teachers with lots of experience because they’re knowledgeable in how students learn. They’re knowledgeable in how to interact with administration with fellow staff. I mean, those are people that you need in your building,” said Brad Anderson. He’s a teacher and local union president at Austin High School.

Those in favor of reform argue that this argument is flawed as current seniority rules only count how long someone has been registered to teach in the district rather than overall experience. They claim that performance based reviews of tenure will result in a better teaching environment for the students and a higher average skill level of teachers in the classroom

Ari Adler, spokesman for state House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said the amendment was part of needed changes in tenure laws for teachers. Legislation to enact the changes originated in the House.

“The focus was to do what we could to protect good teachers and ensure a high quality of education for the students,” Adler said. “We were hearing a number of stories where there were young teachers who were outstanding in their profession but were being laid off simply because they did not have the seniority.”