Minnesota laws protect teachers who should no longer be in classrooms, thus preventing thousands of students from getting a high-quality education, claims a lawsuit to be filed Thursday by national and local education reform groups.
The suit — only the third of its kind in the country — could reignite the battle over union protections for Minnesota teachers.
“When we look throughout the country at places where there are harmful teacher employment statutes and significant achievement gaps, Minnesota was one of the first states that popped up as a place that could use this kind of help,” said Ralia Polechronis, executive director of Partnership for Educational Justice.
At issue are state laws, such as the Teacher Tenure Act, that grant layoff protection to teachers after three years on the job, require a lengthy procedure to fire them and set up a system where teachers with less seniority are fired first regardless of their performance, known as Last in First Out.
The plaintiffs in the case are four mothers from Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis. Their suit seeks to have state tenure and dismissal laws ruled unconstitutional, claiming they violate the state’s constitutional guarantee to a “thorough and efficient” education.
“This is a conversation about students’ fundamental right to an education and the laws that get in the way of that right,” said Jesse Stewart, one of five attorneys representing the families.
Brenda Cassellius, the state’s education commissioner, defended the state laws.
“We also have rigorous laws that protect due process for teachers and that, when followed, provide school administrators and school boards with the authority to remove teachers,” she said.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, said the union has not decided if it will formally intervene in the case, but said the current laws do not protect ineffective teachers.
“It doesn’t matter to the out-of-state groups behind this suit that Minnesota is facing a teacher shortage, nor that high-needs schools are trying to attract more senior teachers, nor the growing body of research showing disparities in income, health and opportunity drive academic inequality — not employment practices,” Specht said.
The lawsuit, to be filed against the State of Minnesota in Ramsey County District Court, is modeled after cases in New York and California in the past few years that have dealt a blow to unions.
A judge in California ruled that tenure laws deprived students of their right to an education under the state constitution. The union is appealing. In New York, the teachers’ union is appealing a judge’s refusal to dismiss a similar case.
The case in Minnesota is supported by education reform groups including Partnership for Educational Justice, which was founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown and is the main sponsor of the tenure challenge in New York.
Campbell Brown “continues to do the bidding of her monied donors,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement Wednesday. “Tenure doesn’t give anyone a job for life; it’s about ensuring fairness and due process in the workplace,” Weingarten said. “Stripping teachers of workplace protections will harm, not help, those students most at risk.”
A news conference is scheduled for noon Thursday at the offices of Students for Education Reform, another organization supporting the suit.
Frustration with Legislature
As in California, the lawsuit points to Minnesota’s disparities in educational outcomes as evidence that thousands of students, particularly minorities, do not have access to high-quality teachers.
The lawyers point to low scores on standardized exams at schools with high concentrations of low-income students and students of color. They argue that despite evidence that teacher quality and effectiveness is the “key determinant of a child’s education advancement,” state laws prevent district leaders from making employment decisions based on performance.
“Too many Minnesota public school students are taught by teachers who fail to provide their students with the most basic skills necessary,” according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs also take issue with the ways teachers get tenure. By law, Minnesota’s teachers are eligible for tenure after three years in a school district. The suit claims the state provides little guidance on the criteria for giving a teacher tenure, and contends districts are not required to consider a teacher’s effectiveness.
Tiffini Flynn Forslund, the lead plaintiff, said she began protesting the current teacher tenure protections after her daughter’s fifth-grade teacher was laid off during budget cuts in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. He was one of the first to lose his job because he was in the district for only one year.
“I couldn’t understand how an excellent teacher could be laid off,” she said. “He outshined any teacher I had ever had or any of my kids had.”
Forslund said she decided to join the lawsuit after watching the Legislature fail to pass laws that prioritize effective teaching over experience. In 2012 the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill to base teacher layoffs on performance, but Dayton vetoed it, saying there was no evaluation system in place. Last year, House Republicans made it a priority to end seniority as the primary factor in teacher layoffs, but Senate Democrats blocked that move in the final stages of the session.
The other plaintiffs are Bonnie Dominguez, of Duluth, and Roxanne Draughn and Justina Person, both of St. Paul.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll, taken in March 2015, found more than two-thirds of the state’s residents say layoffs should be based on a teacher’s performance.