The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit arguing that state laws make it too hard to get rid of bad teachers and threaten students' right to an adequate education.
The ruling in the case of Forslund v. Minnesota comes nearly three years after a group of parents from Minneapolis, St. Paul, Eagan and Duluth sued the state. They contended that laws related to teacher contracts, tenure and dismissal protected ineffective teachers and sometimes resulted in more qualified teachers being let go. The lawsuit suggested that those laws violated the constitution because they left some students with bad teachers, depriving them of the adequate education they are entitled to under state law.
In the unanimous ruling from the three-judge panel, Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Tracy Smith wrote that while the parents' lawsuit alleged their students were receiving an inadequate education because of the state's tenure laws, they did not prove that the students' constitutional rights had been violated.
"[The parents'] claims do not challenge individual tenure or dismissal decisions, nor do they rely on individual instances of ineffective teaching," Smith wrote. "Rather, they assert that the challenged statutes burden their children's education right by making it more difficult for districts to deny tenure and dismiss ineffective teachers."
Nekima Levy-Pounds, one of the attorneys representing the parents, said the ruling was "disappointing to the parents, children, and community members advocating for better educational outcomes for children in Minnesota." She added that students of color, whom the parents argued were disproportionately harmed by teacher tenure laws, "deserve access to the same quality of education as their white counterparts."
The lawsuit was one of several backed by educational advocacy groups including the New York-based Partnership for Educational Justice, a nonprofit group founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown. The group focuses primarily on challenging states' teacher tenure laws through lawsuits, and had been involved in similar cases in New York and New Jersey. It is an affiliate of the national group 50Can, which advocates for charter schools and school choice, among other issues.
In a statement, 50Can Executive Director Alissa Bernstein said her organization was "extremely disappointed" by the court's ruling.
"Forslund v. Minnesota surely shows the ups and downs of impact litigation," she said. "We are proud to support the brave mothers who have nevertheless persisted in their pursuit for educational justice that asks the state to deliver on its promise of an adequate education for all children in Minnesota."
The decision was cheered by Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, which characterized the case as a "misguided lawsuit brought without compelling evidence."
"As we have seen in other states, attempts to weaken or repeal these due process protections do not improve teacher quality or student achievement," the union's president, Denise Specht, said in a statement.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said state officials were similarly pleased with the court's decision.
"I am proud Minnesota is a state that both provides teachers due process and robust teaching quality measures at every step of a teacher's career. We remain committed to strengthening teaching and learning for every student in Minnesota's public schools."
The Court of Appeals ruling on Tuesday was its second in the Forslund v. Minnesota case.
The lawsuit was initially filed in April 2016. Six months later, Ramsey County District Court Judge Margaret Marrinan dismissed the case, writing that the parents failed to prove that their children's rights had been violated as a result of teacher tenure laws. In her opinion, Marrinan said students have the right to attend school, but not the right to have an "effective teacher." Moreover, she said it was not the court's job to assess what amounts to an adequate education.
The parents appealed the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which in September 2017 sided with the lower court and dismissed the case. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of that decision, but the case was put on hold after a June 2018 ruling in a separate case related to school segregation. In that case, the state's high court ruled that it was the place of the courts — and not the Legislature — to determine the standards of an adequate education.
Daniel Sellers, executive director of the Minnesota-based advocacy group EdAllies — which had filed a court brief in support of the parents' case — said his organization was displeased with the court's decision, particularly because it means a court won't get to examine the parents' claims more closely. But he said he is pleased the ruling noted that the courts can consider the question of whether state laws are standing in the way of students' right to an adequate education.
"They found that parents can use the courts as a remedy when the legislative process is not producing the outcomes they would like to see," he said.
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790