A group of mothers supported by local and national education reform groups filed a legal challenge Thursday to state laws that protect teachers’ jobs, saying they prevent thousands of students from receiving a high-quality education.
Meanwhile, the California tenure lawsuit on which the Minnesota case is closely modeled was dealt a severe setback late in the day.
The California Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling in favor of the California plaintiffs. The lower court had found that the state’s tenure laws are unconstitutional. The higher court disagreed, ruling that such laws “do not inevitably cause poor & minority students to receive an unequal, deficient education.”
The California ruling has no legal impact in Minnesota, but union officials here called it a major victory for teachers’ rights.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, hailed the decision as an important precedent for teachers “who depend on due process protections when they speak the unvarnished truth about the learning conditions in their schools.”
Ralia Polechronis, executive director of the Partnership for Educational Justice — one of the groups sponsoring the lawsuit — said the group will continue to back similar challenges to teacher tenure laws in Minnesota and New York.
“Our support is unwavering for the brave parent plaintiffs willing to speak out against a status quo that continues to fail their children,” Polechronis said.
The day was marked by fierce debate on the controversial issue.
Advocates for the lawsuit, which was filed in Ramsey County District Court, maintain that Minnesota law protects teachers who should not be in classrooms at the expense of students.
Teachers’ unions and supporters contend that the lawsuit is a thinly disguised attack on teachers by organizations funded by wealthy philanthropists and business owners.
The suit is sponsored by the partnership and the Minnesota chapter of Students for Education Reform. Founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, the partnership is the main sponsor of the similar challenge in New York. Five lawyers, from Minneapolis and Louisiana, represent the four plaintiffs.
Latasha Gandy, Minnesota executive director of Students for Education Reform, said her local organization sought out Brown’s group, not the other way around. Partnership for Educational Justice receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation and Eli Broad.
“It is frustrating to constantly hear that parents of color and low-income parents are uninvolved in our own children’s lives,” Gandy said at a news conference Thursday. “Then, when we take action, to be told we are pawns of outside groups for rich philanthropists.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the Minnesota suit “politics as usual from Campbell Brown, who continues to bash teachers rather than tackling the real problems facing public education.”
Gov. Mark Dayton criticized the suit as “another one of these right-wing approaches trying to dictate public policy through litigation.”
“I’m not a lawyer or constitutional lawyer, but I don’t think it’ll be found to have merit in Minnesota,” he said.
The suit — filed by Tiffini Forslund, Justina Person, Bonnie Dominguez and Roxanne Draughn — argues that laws such as Minnesota’s Teacher Tenure Act grant layoff protection to teachers after three years, require a lengthy process to fire them and set up a system known as “last in, first out,” where teachers with less seniority are the first laid off, regardless of performance.
The suit highlights disparities in test scores and other educational outcomes as evidence that thousands of students, particularly minorities, don’t have access to high-quality teachers. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that despite evidence that teacher quality is the “key determinant of a child’s education advancement,” state laws prevent districts from making job decisions based on performance.
Draughn said her child was “bullied in kindergarten by his teacher” and as a result didn’t want to go to school. “To talk about how we are getting the resources and how we are getting this done is not a fair question,” Draughn said.
Mavis Mantila, a teacher in the Minneapolis School District and union advocate, challenged the suit’s claims that state laws protect ineffective teachers. She pointed to a district policy that requires teachers to show improvement or face the possibility of dismissal.
“It’s just a myth that teachers don’t get fired,” she said.
Education Minnesota said state laws already address some of the suit’s claims, such as the 2011 Teacher Development and Evaluation law that requires annual reviews “and includes termination procedures for teachers who won’t, or can’t, improve.”