Lawsuit alleges MN teacher tenure laws perpetuate achievement gap

Tiffini Forslund
Tiffini Forslund, a plaintiff in the case challenging Minnesota's teacher tenure laws, spoke at a press conference at the office of Students For Education Reform Minnesota on April 14, 2016.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

Updated 3:38 a.m. April 15 | Posted: 4 p.m. April 14

A group of parents backed by a national nonprofit say Minnesota's teacher tenure laws perpetuate the state's academic achievement gap between white students and students of color.

The group on Thursday filed a lawsuit that challenges Minnesota laws that make it more difficult to fire teachers once they've been employed for more than three years. The suit was filed in Ramsey County district court.

While a school board can fire a tenured teacher for a variety of reasons, state statute requires the board to notify a teacher in writing and give the teacher a chance for a hearing before the board. The plaintiffs argue that process makes it too hard for districts to fire ineffective teachers.

The group says the law most heavily impacts schools with high populations of students of color and low-income students. The complaint says ineffective teachers are most likely to be assigned to those schools.

The case also challenges a law that requires schools to lay off teachers in order of seniority. The parents argue the rule results in newer, more effective educators being laid off before older, less-effective teachers. The plaintiffs also say the rule makes it hard for districts to recruit new teachers.

"My daughter had a fifth grade teacher that was extremely intuitive to his classroom, to his students, to my daughter. I had not run into a teacher of this caliber through all three of my children. And he had had seven years of experience, and then due to last-in-first-out procedures he was let go," says plaintiff Tiffini Forslund.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in a statement that Minnesota laws "protect due process for teachers" and "when followed, provide school administrators and school boards with the authority to remove teachers."

Cassellius says the department is reviewing the lawsuit.

The state teachers' union president Denise Specht said in a statement that the contested laws "protect teachers from discrimination and arbitrary punishment, including for speaking out about the learning conditions in their schools."

Specht said the laws "explicitly do not protect ineffective teachers."

The parents are backed by the national nonprofit Partnership for Educational Justice, which brought a similar lawsuit in New York. A third case challenging teacher tenure in California was initially decided in favor of the plaintiffs, but a state appeals court reversed that ruling Thursday.