The job security shielding veteran teachers makes it difficult to kick out the lousy ones, a group of parents from around Minnesota argues. Those parents are fighting to have their lawsuit against the state heard after a lower court threw it out last fall.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Wednesday heard oral arguments in a high-stakes teacher tenure lawsuit, the third of its kind nationally. An attorney for the parents told the appeals court that students' right to an adequate education calls for dismantling the state's long-standing tenure laws that can make it difficult to fire bad teachers.
Defense attorneys for the state said that teacher quality is an issue that falls squarely to the Legislature, not the courts, and that previous cases make the arguments worthless.
The case hinges on whether the state's seniority laws that protect teachers violate student rights. The parents who filed the lawsuit say they believe tenure laws are unconstitutional.
Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, backs the tenure laws for its members, while other education groups including Students for Education Reform-Minnesota (SFER-MN) and Partnership for Educational Justice support the parents who brought the suit last April.
"What is the point of having an education system if it's not quality?" said Latasha Gandy, executive director of SFER-MN.
In the fall, a Ramsey County judge dismissed the suit, saying there wasn't a strong enough connection between poor student achievement and the due process required by teacher tenure laws. The parents appealed the decision in March.
Teachers in Minnesota are considered probationary for at least three years and are evaluated during that time. They can be fired or demoted during that probationary period.
"These laws don't prevent bad teachers from getting fired, they prevent good teachers from being fired for bad reasons," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a statement.
A question of tenure
Judges prodded both sides with questions about the criteria that define an ineffective teacher and about the impact of tenure laws.
Judge Tracy M. Smith asked if plaintiffs had defined unsuccessful teaching and questioned whether there should be a measurable threshold of ineffectiveness.
"Any large employer is going to have some number of ineffective employees," Smith said. "There will be ineffective teachers."
Representing the state of Minnesota, attorney Alethea Huyser said the case can't be directed by the courts and said a previous case didn't find a "standard for adequacy" established in the state Constitution.
But Jim Swanson, attorney for the parents, pushed that the case should be heard and said that kids have a right to an adequate education, citing a previous ruling.
"If we got rid of these statutes, then the process would work better and we'd have fewer ineffective teachers teaching the kids," Swanson said after the oral arguments.
The group of parents come from Minneapolis, St. Paul, Eagan and Duluth. The Minnesota Department of Education can't comment while the appeal is being examined, spokesman Josh Collins said.
Looming over the teacher tenure battle is another lawsuit that the Minnesota Supreme Court is expected to hear in the fall. Parents in that case say the state has shirked its responsibility to provide poor and minority kids an adequate education.