Minnesota Teacher Tenure Lawsuit to Continue, Despite Vergara Ruling

Published September 26, 2016

Minnesota parents suing the state over its teacher tenure laws say they will go through with their lawsuit even though the California Supreme Court recently declined to hear a similar case.

Minnesota’s tenure laws grant teachers job protection after three years of employment. When layoffs occur, teachers are primarily removed in reverse order of seniority, on a “last in, first out” (LIFO) basis.

Four parents of public school students filed the Forslund v. Minnesota lawsuit in April. The complaint alleges the state’s teacher tenure laws and layoff procedures “deprive students of their fundamental right to a thorough and efficient education” granted by the state constitution.

The complaint also alleges the laws “perpetuate Minnesota’s opportunity gaps” between low-income students and students of color and their peers.

“The problem is worse for students at schools serving predominantly low-income students and students of color because such schools employ a disproportionate share of ineffective teachers,” the complaint states. “In general, low-income students and students of color are more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than students attending schools serving more affluent and/or majority-white student populations.”      

The parents are requesting the court declare the state’s tenure and seniority policies unconstitutional. They are also asking the court to “enter a permanent injunction” that would prevent the state from implementing a tenure or seniority system in the future.

‘We Will Continue Fighting’

The California Supreme Court decided in August not to review the ruling made by an appellate court in the case Vergara v. California, which upheld California’s tenure and seniority rules.  Plaintiffs in Vergara challenged the state’s tenure and dismissal laws and won an early victory in March 2014, when the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in their favor.

In April 2016, California’s Second District Court of Appeals overturned the Superior Court’s ruling, deciding the plaintiffs had failed to show tenure and seniority laws were to blame for depriving students of a quality education.   

Tiffini Flynn Forslund, the lead plaintiff in the Minnesota case, said in a press release given in August, after the Vergara ruling, “Our frustrations and our momentum are too strong for this parent movement to stop here. We will continue fighting for educational justice and won’t be silenced until every student’s right to a quality education is upheld.”

A Ramsey County District Court judge heard initial arguments in Forslund v. Minnesota in July. The Willmar West Central Tribune reported at the time, “If the case moves forward it will likely be months before it goes to trial.”

‘Directly Affected My Family’

Forslund says she decided to challenge Minnesota’s tenure and seniority rules after a layoff at her public school. 

“It’s something that I have been advocating as an activist and have been lobbying [in favor of] for quite a while,” Forslund said. “It directly affected my family and did not make sense to me. My middle daughter had an extremely good 5th grade teacher who was unbelievably better than any other teacher I had ever seen through my schooling or my kids’ schooling. And then he was let go because he had had seven years in another school district, and he had just come to our school district.”

The teacher Forslund described was “last in,” making him vulnerable.

“He had [been awarded] ‘Teacher of the Year,'” Forslund said. “That just did not make sense to me. Why would you let a teacher who is just exemplary go? Why would you fire them out of the school system?”

Board’s Arguments Not ‘Solid’

Forslund says she sat in on the dismissal hearings of her daughter’s teacher and was not impressed by the school board’s arguments.

“I sat through the hearings,” Forslund said. “I think we brought up some really good points. There were many attorneys from other school districts. Many of their arguments didn’t seem solid. One of the things that came up was that LIFO originated in 1920. We’re in 2016 now. It was definitely set up to protect the job of a teacher no matter how their teaching efforts or outcomes are. To me, that is a huge piece to the education failure that we’re seeing.”

Giving Principals Discretion

Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says schools would do better if principals were in control of who is hired and fired.

“It’s very hard to gauge the damage that [LIFO] does to the public school system,” Eden said. “It matters the most when school districts are facing a budget crunch and have to scale back their workforce. Ideally, you would want a principal to have the discretion to cut the poor teachers and keep the good ones, but LIFO takes that authority out of their hands, so it leaves students with a [weaker] set of teachers than they deserve.”

A ‘Very Avoidable Loss’

Eden says parents can do “more than many might think” to fight unfair firings.

“Parents would not be able to get a teacher fired, per se, but if they are willing to fight to get their kid away from a bad teacher and to a classroom led by a more-talented one, they may be surprised at the accommodations the district would be willing to make to avoid a headache,” Eden said. “It might dispirit new teachers. But the real loss comes when talented young teachers find themselves laid off. Some may try to return, but many others will not, and that’s a very avoidable loss for our public school system.”

Kimberly Morin ([email protected]) writes from Brentwood, New Hampshire.