The recent California court ruling on teacher tenure laws is expected to resurrect debate over Minnesota statutes — and that’s good news for this state’s students and their families.
Last week, a judge ruled that California tenure laws governing the hiring, firing, layoffs and job security of teachers were unconstitutional because they can deny students the right to equal educations. The Vergara vs. California case was filed on behalf of nine public school students who charged that state laws force districts to give tenure to incompetent teachers. The students argued that they had terrible teachers who were nearly impossible to fire and who kept them from getting good educations.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down several state laws — including those that govern when teachers receive tenure and how they must be laid off during budget-based staff reductions. That directly challenged reverse-seniority practices known as “last in, first out,” or LIFO, that are also in place in Minnesota law.
Treu concluded that the California laws violated equal protection rules by subjecting California’s 6.2 million students to “grossly ineffective teachers,” which disproportionately harms poor and minority students. And, he said, the seniority system drives effective new teachers from the classroom while allowing incompetent senior ones to stay on.
“The evidence is compelling, ” Treu wrote. “Indeed, it shocks the conscience.’’
Minnesota’s tenure laws require school leaders to lay off educators based only on seniority — unless an individual school board and teacher’s union negotiate their own layoff plans. So absent a negotiated alternative, school boards must do layoffs according to seniority only. In this state, only about 40 percent of districts have negotiated alternative plans.
In 2012, a bill to repeal the seniority-only provision was passed by the state House and Senate, which were controlled by the GOP. Known as the LIFO bill, the measure was supported by education reform advocates, including a handful of DFL lawmakers, public polls and this page.
The modest but important bill would have scrapped the seniority-only provision and replaced it with a system based on licensure and teacher performance along with seniority. To the dismay and disappointment of many, Gov. Mark Dayton sided with the powerful Education Minnesota union and vetoed the measure.
A similar bill was proposed during the 2014 session, but failed to make it out of committee to be heard by the full DFL-controlled Legislature.
The California case opens a new chapter in discussions on education and closing the achievement gap for many poor kids and students of color. Historically, court rulings about educational adequacy and equity have involved doing away with discrimination based on funding, location and racial composition.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s famous 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, for example, struck down legally sanctioned segregated schools. Later decisions called for busing to achieve equal access or increased funding to match what was being spent in more affluent, mostly white school districts.
The California decision is among the first to cite quality of teaching and instruction as an obstacle to equal educational opportunity. It highlights an issue that education reform groups have been discussing for years.
Given the California ruling, the issue should have more traction in the Legislature next year. With its current law, Minnesota continues to be out of sync with the rest of the country. This state is one of only about a dozen that make seniority the default sole factor to consider when districts reduce their teacher workforces.
There is a chance, however, that Minnesota could be the target of a lawsuit over teacher tenure before the Legislature can address the issue again. Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Vergara case have said they are considering filing similar legal challenges in several states, including Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Connecticut.
Of course, experience and due process matter in teaching, as in any profession. Pay schedules in school district contracts recognize that fact. But time on the job should not be the only factor governing whether an educator stays or goes. Competency and effectiveness — whether or not students are learning — matter, too.
The Legislature and state law should support giving school districts more flexibility to make staffing decisions that are best for student learning — not job security for teachers.