Minnesota Court Hears Opening of Teacher Tenure Lawsuit

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

The first arguments in a lawsuit targeting Minnesota's union protections for public school teachers have been heard in a Ramsey County District Court.

According to state and local officials, the lawsuit should be dismissed because it is an effort to alter long-standing state measures through the judicial system instead of the legislature.

"Plaintiffs' pithy and dismissive rhetoric aside, the actual allegations in the (lawsuit) are nothing but an attempt by a handful of parents to get a court to do what the Legislature would not do," attorneys for the St. Paul Public Schools wrote recently in a legal brief supporting the dismissal request.

The lawsuit was filed in April by four parents from the St. Paul, Duluth, Anoka-Hennepin and West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan districts. They say that teacher tenure and faculty cuts based mostly on seniority create underachieving schools for students living in low-income families and students of color. They added that the current law is unconstitutional.

The local chapter of Students for Education Reform and the Partnership for Educational Justice support the case, reports Christopher Magan for the Pioneer Press.

The lawsuit states that Gov. Mark Dayton, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and local school leaders continue policies that take away the "fundamental right to a uniform and thorough education as a result of being assigned to a chronically ineffective teacher."

Lawmakers did pass a bill in 2012 to remove seniority as the principal factor for making decisions for staffing when layoffs occur. Gov. Dayton vetoed the bill, saying a new system of training and evaluating teachers would raise teacher accountability and make firing ineffective teachers easier to do.

Even though districts are allowed to use factors other than seniority to make decisions about firing staff members, time serving in the position remains the primary decision-making factor.

Minnesota Public Radio's Solvejg Wastvedt reports that parent Tiffini Forslund, one of the plaintiffs, told the story of her child's fifth-grade teacher. She explained that he was a new teacher, but he did an excellent job of keeping students engaged. End-of-the-year cuts began, and the Anoka-Hennepin School District educator was laid off. Forslund blames the firing on the seniority format.

Maria Le, a Roseville teacher, is a supporter of the tenure rules and serves on her union's executive board:

"Without the protections to allow them to get what they need to allow them to improve, to really just be able to teach our children to be leaders," she said, "they're not going to be able to withstand what really needs to be done to close the achievement gap."

Le added that tenure is particularly important for teachers of color who may have cultural differences or controversies with administrators. Le is a Vietnamese-American.

St. Catherine University economist Kristine West argues that it may be time to update tenure laws. She said the laws came about mostly because there were not measures in place that rated teachers' effectiveness, so "years served" was used as a proxy for competence instead.

Now efforts have been made in the area of evaluating educators, so that proxy is no longer necessary, she says. West adds that there is little evidence that removing laws that protect teachers from being fired would get rid of a larger number of ineffective educators.

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