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Minnesota Faces a Vergara-Style Lawsuit on Teacher Job Protections

Modeling their case on the so-far successful Vergara v. California lawsuit, four Minnesota mothers, represented by both local and national advocacy groups, have filed suit in a district court asserting that the state's teacher-tenure protections keep bad teachers in classrooms, where they are dooming thousands of Minnesota children to substandard educations.

"Too many Minnesota public school students are taught by teachers who fail to provide their students with the most basic skills necessary to participate as a citizen and compete in the marketplace," the complaint contends, according to a Star Tribune report.

Like similar high profile efforts in California and New York, the plaintiffs allege that the burden of Minnesota's teacher-tenure laws—which entitle teachers with three years experience to lengthy hearings before being fired and require that schools layoff teachers with less seniority first—fall squarely on the shoulders of the students who can least afford it, exacerbating the state's achievement gaps.

"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 Partnership for Educational Justice, which is also involved in the New York tenure case.

The suit comes a year after a Star Tribune investigation found that teachers deemed ineffective on Minneapolis's teacher-evaluation system were more likely to be employed at schools that primarily serve poor and minority students.

Minnesota's teachers' union president Denise Specht, however, contests claims that union protections play a role in the academic-performance disparities between poor and higher-income kids and white students and students of color.

"It doesn't matter to the out-of-state groups behind this suit that Minnesota is facing a teacher shortage, or that high-needs schools are trying to attract more senior teachers, or the growing body of research showing disparities in income, health and opportunity drive academic inequality—not employment practices," Specht said in a statement. "This is just another attack on working people."

As my co-blogger Stephen Sawchuk pointed out in 2014, teacher-policy watchers have long seen Minnesota as a prime target for a Vergara-style lawsuit. Like California, the state's constitution directly addresses educational equity, proclaiming "it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools."

One key difference between Minnesota and California, however, is the amount of time a teacher needs to be on the job before being granted tenure, a linchpin in the Vergara case—in Minnesota it takes three years compared to just 18 months in California. 

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