A reignited debate over teacher tenure is almost guaranteed in Minnesota in the wake of a California court’s landmark ruling that seniority systems hurt students.
Some legislators and education reform advocates who have pushed to change Minnesota’s teacher tenure laws say they’re likely to revive their challenges to seniority rules.
“When I first saw the news about the ruling, my first thought was, this may be the catalyst to bring people to the table to talk about this issue,” said state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, one of only a few DFLers who have supported changes in teacher tenure rules. “I’m hopeful we’re going to have that discussion again.”
So is Kathy Saltzman, a former legislator who is now the Minnesota director of StudentsFirst, a group that has pressed to eliminate state teacher tenure laws.
“Now, with a robust teacher evaluation law in place, now is the time for us to have a real conversation about the fact there’s no state requirement for teachers with repeated ineffective ratings to be dismissed,” she said. “This ruling is a win for kids.”
California was sued by nine students who claimed that the state’s teacher tenure laws resulted in schools losing promising young teachers in favor of weaker teachers with more experience. The plaintiffs argued that low-income and minority students often were stuck with incompetent teachers, keeping them behind their more affluent peers.
The decision that the rules are unconstitutional came as a blow to teachers unions, which have argued that experience is a vital component in education.
There is a chance, however, that lawyers might force the conversation about teacher tenure in Minnesota before legislators have their next shot.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Vergara vs. California case have said they are considering filing similar legal challenges in several states, including Minnesota, New York, New Mexico, Oregon, Maryland and Connecticut. In general, legislative attempts to weaken seniority rules for teachers have failed in those states.
“Most of these states also have language in their constitutions that makes some kind of reference to there being an equal right to education,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Teacher Quality. “I don’t mean to imply that there won’t be challenges in other states, but these seem to be the best candidates.”
‘Ruling changes things’
In 2012, both the Minnesota House and Senate passed legislation that would have scrapped seniority as the sole determining factor in teacher layoffs.
But Gov. Mark Dayton, backed by the state teachers union, Education Minnesota, vetoed legislation that would have abolished the rule, more commonly known as “last in, first out,” or LIFO for short.
Since Democrats took control of both legislative chambers in 2013, similar efforts have fizzled.
“I think everyone knows that I would have moved a bill had it been movable,” said Sen. Branden Peterson, R-Andover, author of the 2012 LIFO legislation. “But that’s not been the political reality. I think maybe, though, this ruling changes things.”
Education Minnesota is prepared for the likelihood of a renewed debate on teacher tenure in lieu of the ruling, said President Denise Specht.
“What we know is this issue tends to be a perennial topic in Minnesota,” she said. “And we’ll make the case, just as we always do, that teachers deserve due process.”
Specht said both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have indicated that they are prepared to help states that face lawsuits challenging teacher tenure.
The American Federation of Teachers blasted the California ruling. “It’s surprising that the court, which used its bully pulpit when it came to criticizing teacher protections, did not spend one second discussing funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that are proven to affect student achievement and our children,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.
The group that filed the California lawsuit, Students Matter, was backed by a Silicon Valley millionaire and represented by a legal team that included attorneys who successfully overturned the state’s gay marriage ban.
Specht cited the millions of dollars in legal fees poured into the case, which she says ultimately won’t help schools, teachers or students.
“Think about what a million dollars could do for a school district,” she said. “You could lower class sizes at some schools with that kind of money. To me, that’s what we should be focused on — efforts that support education.”