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Are state tenure laws unconstitutional?

A Minnesota lawsuit contends that state laws regarding tenure and a 'last in, first out' layoff policy are unconstitutional and detrimental to students' educations.

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    Teacher Elizabeth Moguel poses for a photograph with her seventh grade Latin class at Boston Latin School.
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A Minnesota lawsuit set to be filed Thursday challenges the state's tenure and teacher layoff laws, following similar suits filed in California and New York in recent years. 

"This is a conversation about students' fundamental right to an education and the laws that get in the way of that right," said plaintiffs' attorney Jesse Stewart, according to the Star Tribune.

The Minnesota lawsuit will be filed by four mothers from Duluth, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. The plaintiffs hope to prove that Minnesota's current tenure and dismissal rules violate the state constitution because they conflict with the mandate for providing a "thorough and efficient system of public schools."

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Opponents to modern day tenure claim it has the potential to protect bad teachers from being removed and hurts newer teachers’ chances of maintaining a job. Supporters say the system remains in place in order to guarantee due process when removing teachers, particularly if standards are subjective. 

"These laws were passed in state after state to protect good teachers from arbitrary actions," Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association union, told NPR.

Conversely, economist and public education expert Jesse Rothstein, formerly the chief economist at the US Department of Labor, told the Washington Post last year that tenure is "really a red herring," and that if it were removed, educational firings would be unlikely to increase.

Both sides say that tenure laws end up affecting students' education, which they call the most important factor in the debate.

Teachers unions, the driving force behind the continuation of tenure systems, say that the concept "was enacted to protect students' education," per an American Federation of Teachers brief on the topic. The Federation also notes that tenure can make teachers more involved in schools, attracts qualified candidates to teach children – especially in low-income areas – and supports teachers' autonomy over how and what to teach. 

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Those who wish to do away with or limit tenure say it can inhibit teachers' effectiveness once their jobs are secured. Tough tenure rules also make it nearly impossible to initiate teacher turnover when necessary, they claim, making it more likely that ineffective teachers can keep their jobs – which violates the right to a quality education, critics argue. 

The Minnesota lawsuit follows Vergara v. California and Davids v. New York, which both challenged educator layoff practices in those states. A 2014 decision, now being appealed, ruled that California's tenure laws violated an equal protections cause in the state constitution. The New York case, now under review, contends that "last in, first out" layoff policies violate the state constitution's promise of a "sound basic education." 

Backers of the Minnesota lawsuit say the state's tenure laws end up harming students, in addition to being unfair to newer teachers in a school system.

"When we look throughout the country at places where there are harmful teacher employment statutes and significant achievement gaps, Minnesota was one of the first states that popped up as a place that could use this kind of help," said Ralia Polechronis, executive director of the Partnership for Educational Justice, according to the Star Tribune.

Minnesota's Teacher Tenure Act allows for teacher layoff protection after three years on the job, and calls for a lengthy hearing process in order to remove tenured educators. The state's LIFO system remains in place, although a vote last year in the House of Representatives pushed forward legislation that would require performance, not just seniority, to factor into layoff decisions.

The lead plaintiff behind the Minnesota suit, Tiffini Forslund, told the Star Tribune that she was inspired to challenge tenure and LIFO policies after her daughter's fifth-grade teacher was laid off because he had only worked at the school for one year.

"I couldn't understand how an excellent teacher could be laid off," she said. "He outshined any teacher I had ever had or any of my kids had."

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