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Justices Decline to Take Up State's Defense of Indiana Teacher-Tenure Limits

As it nears a decision in one public-employee labor case that many expect will curtail the power of the teachers' unions, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a separate case involving efforts by Indiana to limit teacher-tenure rights.

The justices declined without comment to hear the appeal of the state of Indiana and Madison Consolidated Schools, which asked them to overrule a 1938 Supreme Court ruling that held that the state's 1927 teacher tenure law created binding rights protecting teachers who had earned tenure.

The state and the district say the 80-year-old precedent in Indiana ex. rel. Anderson v. Brand is hampering the state's full implementation of a 2011 Indiana law, known as SB 1, that included a measure allowing districts to lay off teachers based on performance rather than seniority.

Joseph Elliott, a 19-year teacher with the Madison district who earned tenure in 1998, was notified that his teaching contract was being canceled because of a reduction in teaching positions. In support of its decision to terminate him over several nontenured teachers, the district cited a handful of past performance evaluations that said Elliott needed improvement in certain areas. One was from 2012.

Elliott sued the district in state court, which removed the case to federal district court. A judge held that Elliott's dismissal violated the contracts clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution and awarded him some $254,000 in back pay, interest, and attorneys' fees. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, affirmed, ruling that while state tenure statutes typically do not create contracts, the Indiana Tenure Law used "contractual language" that induced "public reliance" and therefore established a contract under the Supreme Court's decision in Anderson.

The appeals court said that Indiana remained free to change the terms of tenure prospectively, as it did for teachers hired after the 2011 reform law. But it would have to buy out the tenure rights of more senior teachers such as Elliott. 

In their appeal to the Supreme Court in Board of Trustees of Madison Consolidated Schools v. Elliott (Case No. 17-1259), Indiana and the district said the decisions below hamper their efforts to reform teacher tenure. The 1938 decision in Anderson would likely be decided differently under more recent contract clause jurisprudence, the brief says, and because Indiana is the only state effectively bound by it and the older ruling is hampering school reform efforts, the justices should overrule it.

"Shifting from seniority to performance as the priority consideration when a school reduces the number of teachers is a necessary component of Indiana's program for quality public education," the state and Madison district argued in brief signed by Indiana Attorney General Curtis T. Hill Jr. and others. "The Court should take this case so that Indiana public schools, which all-too-frequently face budget shortfalls, will have the best options available for ensuring positive student educational outcomes, even following a reduction in the teaching force."

Elliott, represented by the National Education Association and an Indianapolis lawyer, argued in a response brief that his case would make a poor vehicle for deciding a teacher-tenure question of national importance.

His lawyers agreed that the Anderson decision applies solely to Indiana, and that most states have made teacher tenure a statutory right that may be altered by lawmakers.

"If Indiana had desired to make teacher tenure a statutory rather than contractual commitment, it had more than six decades in which to do so between this court's decision in Anderson and when Elliott earned tenure in 1998," the brief on behalf of the teacher says.

The teacher's brief asserts that the school district "based its layoff decision on little more than a freewheeling kibitzing session among school principals, which resulted in a decision to remove Elliott despite the fact that his pre-SB 1 performance ratings were superior to those of many of the teachers the board retained."

The justices declined to take up the Indiana case, but they are expected to rule by the end of June in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 (No. 16-1466), which could end the right of public-employee unions to collect agency fees for collective bargaining from workers who decline to join the union.

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