Parents sue state, school districts over teacher tenure

Maria Le and Mary Clive speak to a student.
Teachers Maria Le, left, and Mary Clive speak to a student outside of Central Park Elementary in Roseville Tuesday. Clive was Le's student teacher before being brought on full-time at the school.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A group of Minnesota parents say state laws that dictate how teachers can be fired contribute to the state's academic achievement gaps. Their lawsuit against the state and four school districts over state teacher tenure laws goes before a judge Thursday.

Tiffini Forslund is among the parents bringing the suit. She said she started getting angry about tenure laws years ago, when her now-teenage daughter was in fifth grade in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Her daughter had a fantastic teacher, she said, who kept students engaged.

Then, at the end of the school year: "There's pay cuts, and he is fired," she said.

Forslund blames the layoff on seniority: The teacher was new. She said she detailed her complaints in a letter.

Tiffini Forslund sits for a portrait.
Tiffini Forslund
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I sent it to Minnesota Department of Education, thinking this was very strong and wrong, that I would get some sort of answers," she said, "and it was just budget cuts. That's how it works.

Forslund doesn't think that should be how it works. She and three other Minnesota mothers are challenging state tenure laws on two main points.

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First, on the requirement that schools lay off teachers in order of seniority, unless the local union negotiates differently. And second, on the steps schools have to follow before they can fire tenured teachers. Schools are required to grant tenured teachers a hearing and the opportunity to correct problems.

The plaintiffs say the laws keep bad teachers in the classroom. And they say the laws contribute to disparities, because ineffective teachers more often work at schools with large numbers of low-income students and students of color.

The defendants — the state and the districts — argue the case should be dismissed. The state's brief also argues that tenure laws are not driving the achievement gap. It adds that charter schools have achievement gaps, even though they're not subject to tenure laws. And in a statement, state Education Department said the laws do allow districts to remove teachers.

Roseville teacher Maria Le is a supporter of the tenure rules. She serves on her local union's executive board.

Maria Le in Central Park Elementary.
Maria Le stands in the hallway of Central Park Elementary School in Roseville. A child of immigrant parents, Le said she recognizes the importance of diversity in education. "We need to have teachers of color so students can see themselves in their education," she said.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Teaching is already hard, Le said, with increasing student needs. She said that tenure gives teachers a chance to improve instead of just being fired.

"Without the protections to allow them to get what they need to allow them to improve, to really just be able to teach our children to be leaders," she said, "they're not going to be able to withstand what really needs to be done to close the achievement gap."

Le is Vietnamese-American. She said tenure protections can be especially important for teachers of color, whos may have cultural differences or disagreements with administrators. In Minnesota, administrators tend to be mostly white.

"I think education in general does a good job of recruiting teachers of color, but not necessarily retaining them," she said.

The Minnesota lawsuit is the latest in a string of cases challenging teacher tenure. A California ruling that struck down tenure laws was overturned in April, and the plaintiffs are appealing. An ongoing case in New York is backed by the nonprofit Partnership for Educational Justice, which also supports Minnesota's suit.

St. Catherine University economist Kristine West said tenure policies, particularly those that lay teachers off in order of seniority, may be due for an update. She said most tenure laws came about when there weren't really good measures for teacher effectiveness, so a teacher's years of service was used as a proxy.

"But the problem is that we're making strides in our ability to measure effectiveness primarily, not having to proxy for it," she said. "And so as the field evolves, and as we are better able to assess teacher effectiveness, we should use that information."

But West said there's less evidence that removing protections against firing teachers would really cause schools to get rid of large numbers of ineffective educators. She said the politically charged debate over that issue may be a distraction.

The judge could dismiss the case after Thursday's hearing. If the case is not dismissed, both parties will gather evidence and prepare for trial.