A Ramsey County judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit challenging Minnesota teacher tenure laws, rejecting its arguments that the laws protect ineffective teachers and deprive low-income and minority students of a high-quality education.
The suit, filed in April by national and local education reform groups, argued that state laws shield veteran teachers from layoffs even when they perform poorly. Senior teachers receive notice if their job is in question and a hearing to defend themselves against termination, whereas teachers with less seniority lack those protections.
The lawsuit, the third of its kind in the nation, was dismissed by Ramsey District Judge Margaret Marrinan on the grounds that it failed to establish a link between low academic achievement and the due process provided by the tenure laws.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, said Wednesday that she was not surprised.
“We are really hoping that we can move beyond today’s decision,” she said. “I hope we can talk about ways to recruit and retain great educators. … Talking about how teachers are laid off is simply not how we are going to get better outcomes for students.”
Court vs. Legislature
In July, state and school district lawyers asked the court to dismiss the suit. Changing tenure laws should be considered by the Legislature and not the court, Alethea Huyser, an associate attorney solicitor general, argued at the time.
She said districts already can fire ineffective teachers and that the plaintiffs didn’t show that tenure laws directly hurt their children.
The Minnesota lawsuit, filed on behalf of the parents of five children, sparked concern among teachers’ advocates after a California judge ruled that state’s tenure laws unconstitutional. They were heartened in April when the California Appeals Court rejected the claims of harm and said it was up to the state legislature to set education policy. In August, the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
For the plaintiffs, the case is not over. “We are not pleased with the result,” said Jesse Stewart, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “An appeal is certainly an option.”
Partnership for Education Justice, a group founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown that sponsored a similar tenure challenge in New York, backed the Minnesota case on behalf of the parents, as did Students for Education Reform Minnesota.
Latasha Gandy, executive director of the latter group, said she was “very disappointed by the ruling today, but proud of the mothers who took this courageous step on behalf of their kids.
“The parent plaintiffs … tried all avenues to keep effective teachers in their children’s classrooms — appealing to school principals, school boards, and the Legislature. Unfortunately none has had the courage to act. Leaders who say the system is working are clearly not serious about our achievement gap. If they were, they’d be fighting with us for policies that ensure only the most effective teachers are in our schools, and especially that students who need the most support get excellent instruction.”
Effect on achievement gap
The plaintiffs had argued that state laws protecting teachers contribute to the achievement gap between white and minority students by laying off effective teachers who lack seniority and holding onto ineffective veteran teachers. They said those factors most affect schools with the highest concentrations of low-income students and students of color.
According to the Partnership for Education Justice, the low-income schools and predominantly minority schools have the most vacancies and the most trouble finding hires, so ineffective teachers are funneled into those schools.
“Despite legislative mandates to close this achievement gap, most Minnesota public schools have failed to make significant progress in narrowing it,” the plaintiffs stated.
Education Minnesota has countered that a 2015 state amendment keeps students from being assigned to a teacher who has been placed on an improvement plan for two years straight.
“We are in a real crisis in Minnesota,” Specht said. “We have a teacher shortage. We are having a hard time recruiting people into the teaching profession. We are seeing a lot of people leave well before retirement once they get there.”
In a statement Wednesday, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius welcomed the ruling.
“As I’ve said from the beginning, Minnesota has some of the most hardworking and talented teachers in the nation, and we are committed to ensuring every student has a dedicated and competent teacher,” Cassellius said. “We also have rigorous laws that protect due process for teachers. … We are pleased with the judge’s decision today.”
Reporter Beena Raghavendran contributed to this report.