Cali. Ruling Reignites Debate on Teacher Tenure in Minn.

Updated: 06/13/2014 6:12 PM
Created: 06/13/2014 3:20 PM
By: Stephen Tellier

A ruling on the other side of the country could cause a major shift in public education across the nation -- and inside your child's classroom.

A California judge struck down that state's teacher tenure policy this week, stopping the practice of laying off the newest teachers first. The ruling has reignited the debate in Minnesota over the same issue, which has long been in the bullseye for education reform groups. They're hoping the ruling is a signal that "last in, first out" policies are doomed nationwide.

But many teachers are concerned that if that happens, experienced teachers could be dumped for younger, cheaper ones, and be unable to speak up for their profession or their students.

Some education reformers have now set their sights on Minnesota's* law, which states, "... teachers must be discontinued in any department in the inverse order in which they were employed," a policy known as, "last in, first out."

"I would hope that this lawsuit calls attention to the fact that other states have said we have to put the needs and interests of students first," said Kathy Saltzman, state director of StudentsFirst Minnesota.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, Minnesota is one of only six states where the law states seniority must be the sole deciding factor during teacher layoffs.

"When we have laws that prevent our school leaders from staffing their buildings based on effectiveness, then that's a concern," Saltzman said.

"After we reach seniority, we don't quit trying," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, Minnesota's largest teacher's union.

Specht said seniority isn't about teacher quality at all. She said tenure laws are really fair dismissal procedures -- protections for senior teachers who want to speak their minds.

"Those are set in place to prevent bad things from happening to good teachers," Specht said.

She also pointed out that Minnesota allows districts to negotiate their own tenure policies, instead of relying on state law, and that 40 percent of districts have done just that.

"Seniority doesn't protect ineffective teachers," Specht said.

"They (Minnesota school districts) are allowed the flexibility, but it's really hard to bargain when you have a default that says, 'If you can't negotiate, seniority rules,'" Saltzman said.

Education reform groups in Minnesota say they still prefer to work on this issue through the state legislature -- a few bills that would have changed the current law failed to gain traction this year. But those groups also now have a bit more leverage, with at least one group previously saying Minnesota may be an attractive next target for a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Education Minnesota said the amount of money spent on these kinds of lawsuits is a waste, and that the conversation should be about things like lowering class sizes and investing in teachers.

Minnesota teachers achieve tenure after three years in the classroom, and it's the same in 31 other states, according to NCTQ. That group also says Minnesota is one of 31 states that awards tenure "virtually automatically," without considering student achievement.

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