Last week, a District Court judge in California ruled that several of that state’s laws regarding teacher seniority and tenure were unconstitutional. No one anywhere on the political spectrum reacted neutrally.
Subsequent headlines have fostered misconceptions: That tenure has been done away with; that the outcome of the case, Vergara v. California, will have sweeping implications throughout the country.
The one thing that seems safe to say is that the suit can be seen as a bellwether in the ongoing political controversies surrounding policies such as teacher layoffs that do not take effectiveness into account and practices that leave impoverished schools disproportionately staffed by ineffective teachers.
If legislative efforts to change some of those laws haven’t succeeded, activists may have found an easier venue in the courts. Whether this opens the door to sweeping change is anyone’s guess.
Monday, this space carried an interview with Mike Ciresi, one of the Minnesota attorneys most familiar with education lawsuits. Among his opinions: That the suits would not be necessary if teacher unions were not “intractable” regarding certain provisions concerning seniority, and if they did not exercise so much political influence.
In fact, Ciresi called out Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teacher union, by name. MinnPost asked Education Minnesota President Denise Specht to provide a counterpoint. The transcript of that conversation follows.
MinnPost: So what do you make of the Vergara decision?
Denise Specht: The California ruling definitely does not have a legal impact on Minnesota. Certainly it’s going to have some political impact, that’s for sure.
I guess this is where I stand: Circumventing the legislative process to strip away due process rights, that’s definitely something that I’m concerned about. I think we should all be concerned about that.
MP: You’ve touched on something the headlines have not made very clear. Can you talk a little bit more about the lack of legal impact here?
DS: In Minnesota, it’s our belief and it’s what we stand for, that teachers deserve due process. I look at due process as our First Amendment, because it allows teachers to have fearless conversations with parents, with administration, with policymakers, about what does and doesn’t work in the classroom. And it allows teachers to advocate for their students without fear of retribution or reprisal.
So my question in thinking about this case, is why would we strip away these protections from all teachers rather than talking about the administrators in this process? If administrators are failing to adequately evaluate teachers before granting tenure, or if they are failing to dismiss teachers when it is warranted, that really comes to the heart of this issue.
Why isn’t the focus on the job of the principals and what they should be doing as well?
MP: Minnesota’s statutes, with one exception, are different from those at issue in California?
DS: Here in Minnesota our statute already allows seniority layoffs or seniority decisions to be negotiated. We’ve got about 40 percent of our staff working in districts that already have done this. They are not using straight seniority when they talk about budget cuts or layoffs.
So it again goes back to that question, if we already have a system that allows for this conversation to happen, why isn’t it happening? It’s a question we have to wrestle with.
As you probably know, we have a number of school districts that don’t have contracts. And if this is a big issue for administrators, then why isn’t this coming up at the bargaining table? I really don’t hear this coming up.
MP: When you talk about those 40 percent of your members in districts that have agreements outside seniority, are you talking about the ability to lay off by licensure?
DS: It could be, it could be a wide range of things. Suffice to say, without having looked at all of the contracts, 40 percent of the school districts have a dismissal process that isn’t solely based on seniority.
If I could interject — one thing that we are really happy about and really focused on now is the teacher development and evaluation law. And as I said earlier, I think a fair dismissal procedure doesn’t necessarily protect ineffective teachers.
School administrators already have the authority to dismiss ineffective teachers. I don’t know why they are waiting for a budget crunch to do that, but they are.
And that enters into the scene that teacher development and evaluation law, which I think is really important. We’re excited about that law, we’ve wanted to have this conversation about getting better feedback and supporting educators in their work so they can get better.
That’s a missing piece in the conversation. And until we get that plan in place, I don’t know how school districts are going to be able to have that conversation about teacher placements without having something to fall back on.
MP: Minnesota has a three-year tenure timeline, unlike the 18-month timeline in Vergara.
DS: Yes, that’s another difference from Minnesota and California. In Minnesota, we have a three-year probationary period. So administrators essentially have three years to have conversations and identify areas of needs with teachers.
And they decide within that time whether they need to find another career and exit out of the profession or whether there’s an improvement plan.
MP: I’ve read headlines in recent days talking about Minnesota as a potential state where a suit like Vergara could come up very soon. Do you think that’s likely, and if so what do you think would happen?
DS: It very well could be likely. This conversation about tenure and due process seem to be perennial topics here in Minnesota. And I believe I have read that David Welch out of the Silicon Valley has promised to continue this campaign.
It already looks like organizations such as Students First are raising funds based on this possibility, so I think it’s absolutely a possibility. I don’t think though that that really keeps us with an eye on the prize.
I don’t think that conversation is really going to help us with the real issues that impact our students. It really is a distraction.
We should be talking about things like lowering class size. We should be talking about investing in Early Childhood and Family Education. We should be talking about unmet [needs of] our students and their families like health, fair housing, lack of education in our families.
But instead we are having conversations about this. And I think it would do us all better if we talked about some of those ideas instead of talking about education without really doing anything.
MP: So the Minnesota Miracle followed an educational adequacy lawsuit in which the plaintiffs sued the state for underfunding the system. Suits throughout the country since then have typically said that lack of funding or lack of resources violates students’ constitutional right to an adequate education. This suit, because it looked squarely at the teacher contract, seems to have changed the way educational adequacy suits look going forward. Is this a game changer in how you, Education Minnesota, need to think about these things?
DS: In the sense of funding, no. We’re always talking about the things that are preventing people from getting into teaching. And [what] could be preventing people from working out [in] some of our hardest-to-staff schools.
So I guess my answer could be it really doesn’t have [to be] a factor because we have always talked about lower class sizes, talked about having the resources and the support systems in a school — that is what’s going to attract people to a school, especially a high-need school.
It takes vision, a leader with vision. So I don’t think it’s going to make us look at that issue any differently.
MP: What in your experience are factors that will attract teachers to very challenged, very high poverty schools?
DS: There has been a lot of research on that topic. And some of the things that I just said are definitely on the top end of that list. One is a leader in the school that has vision and is supportive.
Two is making sure that there are resources, time, support to do the work. Another one is support, professional autonomy. Those things rise to the top when you talk to educators.
We did a series of community meetings around the state. Our conversation topic was about teacher quality. One of the questions we talked about is how do you know if you got a good teacher and what would make a quality teacher.
But a few things really rose to the top that were somewhat surprising. And one was that many of the community members and parents that attended our conversations would not recommend teaching [as a career] to their own children.
When we asked them why, it came down to the professional respect. They are not seeing in the media or at the workplace that teachers are being respected as professionals in the work that they do.
Pay didn’t rise to the top in those conversations when it came to how to staff schools. But definitely pay, getting into the teaching profession, I line that up with respect.
There were many people, especially students of color, who said we’re not going to consider getting into teaching because of the high cost of going to college, the amount of debt I’m going to incur, the starting salary of the teaching profession is certainly not going to help me pay off the debt. So they’re looking for other professions.
MP: Is there anything you want to talk about that I haven’t asked you about?
DS: I want to make very clear, especially to Mr. Ciresi, that Education Minnesota does not believe that tenure is a job for life. Education Minnesota does not want ineffective teachers in the classroom.
What we do want is a system that lifts up and supports the profession. But we want a fair and effective process, too. One that would remove or dismiss teachers in a fair way.
That’s why we have put all of our organizational strengths behind the teacher development and evaluation law. We want that law done well, and I believe in the premise behind it.
And I believe we are the only organization who has done a considerable amount of heavy lifting. We’ve done trainings, which supported, we’ve advocated our plans.
I can’t name one organization that has that has pumped as much resources and training time into that law as we have. We want that to work.