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Teacher Placements on Trial in Colorado 'Mutual Consent' Case

Colorado's highest court is set to wade into the teacher-tenure debate after agreeing to hear a case brought by seven current and former Denver Public School (DPS) teachers. The teachers are suing DPS over how the district is using the state's 2010 teacher-evaluation law to place tenured teachers on unpaid leave.

Before the 2010 law, tenured teachers who were "excessed"&mash;that is, lost their current position because of program changes (say a school decided not to offer Spanish anymore, for instance), were guaranteed a new placement. Those teachers were just assigned to an open teaching position in the district, whether or not the principal at the new school wanted them there, in a practice called "force placement." 

Since 2010, DPS has been placing excessed teachers on temporary assignments and giving them 12 months to find a position via "mutual consent"—one where the principal and other staff agree to take them on. If unsuccessful after 12 months, those teachers are placed on unpaid leave. Teachers and their unions argue that this process violates the central tenets of tenure, saying it amounts to the same thing as firing teachers without cause or a hearing.

District leaders and principals across the country have argued that "forced placement" too often leads to weak teachers being placed in low-income and minority schools, because these schools are the most likely to experience frequent openings. They argued this practice exacerbates achievement gaps.

"If districts must go back to 'forced placement,' then those students are the most likely to have teachers who are not the right fit forced into their schools," Denver Public School's acting superintendent Susana Cordova told Chalkbeat Colorado.

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg, currently on a six-month leave of absence, struck a similar note, talking to my colleague Stephen Sawchuk a few years back: "Schools are incredibly mission-driven organizations, and each has its own unique culture. It's really important that all of the members of the team at the school buys into that vision."

But teachers and their unions say that just because a teacher is excessed doesn't mean he or she is a bad teacher. Union leaders have argued "mutual consent" opens the door to the kinds of favoritism and nepotism that teachers unions were created to counteract.

Rob Weil, the director of field programs for the American Federation of Teachers, told Sawchuk: "At a minimum, it's a return to the old industrial model, top-down management of schools that didn't work then and isn't going to work now. It's definitely going back to yesterday."

The Denver case was originally filed back in 2014. The District Court Judge Michael Martinez sided with the school district, ruling that placing a teacher on unpaid leave isn't the same thing as firing him or her altogether. The teachers, however, won on appeal, which led the district to ask the state's Supreme Court to hear the case. 

Denver is far from alone, several districts and states have fought to end "force placement." Usually with a self-proclaimed education reformer at the helm, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, Chicago and New York City are just some of the jurisdictions that have targeted these involuntary transfers. 


For more on the Denver lawsuit:


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