Minn. teacher tenure challenge faces hurdle

ST. PAUL--A Ramsey County District Court judge will hear initial arguments Thursday in a lawsuit aimed at dismantling Minnesota's union protections for public school teachers.

ST. PAUL-A Ramsey County District Court judge will hear initial arguments Thursday in a lawsuit aimed at dismantling Minnesota's union protections for public school teachers.

State and local leaders want the case dismissed, saying the lawsuit is an attempt to change long-standing state laws through the court system rather than the Legislature.

"Plaintiffs' pithy and dismissive rhetoric aside, the actual allegations in the (lawsuit) are nothing but an attempt by a handful of parents to get a court to do what the Legislature would not do," attorneys for the St. Paul Public Schools wrote recently in a legal brief supporting the dismissal request.

Four parents from the St. Paul, Duluth, Anoka-Hennepin and West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan districts filed the lawsuit in April saying teacher tenure and staff cuts based primarily on seniority are unconstitutional and create ineffective schools for low-income students and students of color. The case is supported by the local chapter of Students for Education Reform and a national group called the Partnership for Educational Justice.

"The current system has been in place for many, many years and I don't see it is working," said Tiffini Flynn Forslund, the lead plaintiff in the case whose children attend Anoka-Hennepin schools. "I see this as a way to create change for a different process."


The lawsuit claims Gov. Mark Dayton, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and local school officials perpetuate policies that deprive children of the "fundamental right to a uniform and thorough education as a result of being assigned to a chronically ineffective teacher."

Cassellius declined to discuss the case through a spokesman who reiterated her earlier statements that Minnesota has "rigorous laws that protect due process for teachers and that, when followed, provide school administrators and school boards with the authority to remove teachers."

The lawsuit argues teacher tenure and seniority-based layoffs are part of the reason Minnesota has a persistent achievement gap between poor and minority students and their white classmates.

Tenure rules establish a system school leaders use in order to discipline or fire educators. Plaintiffs argue those union protections make it hard to fire ineffective teachers and seniority-based layoffs make it tough to retain promising young educators when budgets are tight.

Schools: Job of Legislature

Attorneys for the state and school districts named in the lawsuit reject those claims.

In more than 100 pages of legal filings seeking to dismiss the case, attorneys for state and local leaders say the four parents who filed the lawsuit have not been able to show how teachers union protections have directly harmed students' education and that the Legislature is the proper place to make the policy changes the lawsuit urges.

The Legislature did pass a bill in 2012 to eliminate seniority as the primary factor for staffing decisions in the event of layoffs, but Gov. Dayton vetoed it. At the time, Dayton said a new teacher evaluation and training system would improve teacher accountability and make it easier to remove ineffective teachers.


State law allows districts to negotiate systems that rely on factors other than seniority when making staffing decisions. Districts do consider other criteria, but seniority remains a major factor.

Challenges elsewhere

Minnesota isn't the first state to face a challenge to teachers union protections. Similar cases are underway in New York and California.

A decision on state and local school leaders motions to dismiss the case isn't expected Thursday. If the case moves forward it will likely be months before it goes to trial.

"I'm hoping Minnesota can pave the way," Forslund said.

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