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Minnesota's Vergara-Style Lawsuit Dismissed

A Minnesota judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of parents and national education reform groups who contended that the state's teacher tenure laws are keeping ineffective teachers in the classroom and thus harming children.

The judge ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that there's a link between the due process rights provided by those laws and the state's wide achievement gaps.

The ruling is yet another setback for groups inspired by Vergara v. California, a landmark case where a trial court initially ruled that California's teacher tenure laws were harming students. Although that decision was later overturned on appeal, the ruling spawned two copycat lawsuits. A similar New York state case is currently working its way through the courts.

The plaintiffs in the Minnesota case argued that the state's laws virtually granted permanent employment to teachers after three years on the job by making it impossible to terminate them even if they were ineffective. They also complained that the tenure laws required districts to terminate less-senior teachers first, regardless of performance, when budget cuts required staff reductions. Together, they contended, these measures led too many poor and minority students to receive a substandard education, violating the state's constitutional guarantee of a uniform system of public education. A Star Tribune investigation did find that educators deemed ineffective by the state's teacher-evaluation system, were more likely to be teaching at schools that serve large numbers of poor and minority students. In their court filings, plaintiffs use this fact to argue that laws granting these ineffective teachers due process rights are exacerbating the state's already wide achievement gaps.

Complaining that teachers' unions have too much influence in state legislatures, national education reform groups have hoped that the courts would overturn tenure laws that they say make it all but impossible to dismiss low-performing educators. The Minnesota judge, however, found that legislators should decide the matter.

"Since their inception in 1927, laws governing teacher tenure have been revised several times. No Minnesota court has previously held that the state's tenure and continuing contract laws violate the Minnesota constitution," wrote Judge Margaret M. Marrinan. "When it comes to education, the Minnesota courts have long recognized that cases challenging educational policies and the methods by which they are achieved are legislative questions that are not justiciable by the courts."


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