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Minnesota appeals court upholds dismissal of teacher tenure suit

ST. PAUL — If Minnesotans want to change state teachers union protections, they should petition the Legislature, not seek changes in the courts.

That's the opinion of a Minnesota Court of Appeals panel, released Tuesday, Sept. 5, upholding a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit claiming the rules were unconstitutional. Instead, the panel found, state lawmakers should decide whether changes are needed because teachers union protections worsen the academic achievement gap between students of color and their peers.

Tiffini Forslund and three other Twin Cities parents filed the lawsuit in 2016 claiming the state-prescribed system for firing educators protects bad teachers and violates some students constitutionally protected access to a quality education. The case was dismissed in October 2016 and the plaintiffs appealed.

"We are disappointed in the decision today," said Jesse Stewart, an attorney for the plaintiffs. Stewart said they have 30 days to decide whether to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Brenda Cassellius, state education commissioner, were both named in the lawsuit for their roles upholding state policies that the plaintiffs say exacerbate the achievement gap. Dayton and Cassellius have both rejected the lawsuit's claims and have argued that Minnesota school leaders already have ways to remove poorly performing teachers.

"When followed, these laws provide school administrators and school boards with the authority to remove teachers," Cassellius said. "We firmly believe that Minnesota is home to some of the most hard-working and talented teachers in the nation, and every student deserves dedicated and competent teachers."

Denise Specht, president of state teachers union Education Minnesota, said the lawsuit was part of a national campaign to mislead the public about teachers union protections. Specht noted there were also cases in New York and New Jersey supported by the national group Partnership for Educational Justice.

"These laws prevent good teachers from being fired for bad reasons," Specht said. "They protect teachers who speak out about the learning conditions in their schools, or for advocating for their students on the margins. Simply put, they let teachers tell parents what they need to know about their schools."

Tuesday's appellate court ruling drew parallels to another public-education-related lawsuit recently before the court. In the Cruz-Guzman case, the plaintiffs allege some state policies encourage segregation and concentrate poor and minority students in struggling schools.

In April, an appeals court returned a similar finding in the Cruz-Guzman case, saying state policies regarding school integration should be left up to the Legislature. The case is headed to the Minnesota Supreme Court later this year.

The Legislature has recently made changes to teachers union rules. In May, Dayton signed an education budget that included a requirement that school districts and their teachers unions create a plan for laying off teachers when times are tight.

In the past, districts could create their own plans or use fall-back rules in state law that focused mainly on seniority.

State leaders have also asked the Legislature for more guidance on how districts can spend roughly $75 million set aside each year to integrate schools and close the achievement gap. State officials hoped to update those rules, but their proposal was criticized by an administrative law judge as an overreach of their rule-making power.