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Minnesota Supreme Court revives 'bad teachers' lawsuit

The Minnesota State Capitol

ST. PAUL—The Minnesota Supreme Court ordered the state Court of Appeals to reconsider a decision to dismiss a lawsuit that claims teachers union rules protect bad educators.

On Tuesday, Aug.. 21, the state's top court said that the appeals court should re-examine the case after another recent state Supreme Court ruling that allowed a class-action lawsuit seeking to desegregate Twin Cities schools to proceed.

The case regarding teachers union protections was brought by four Minnesota mothers, led by Tiffani Forslund of Minneapolis, who allege tenure, seniority-based layoffs and other rules violate students constitutional right to an "uniform and thorough education."

The 2016 lawsuit claims these union protections result in students of color predominantly attending low-achieving schools with ineffective teachers.

"Every child in Minnesota has a fundamental right to an adequate education, and these brave mothers are standing up and asking the state to deliver on that promise," said Alissa Bernstein, executive director of Partnership for Educational Justice, which is supporting the lawsuit.

In July, the state Supreme Court ruled that courts could intervene when students were not receiving an adequate education promised under the state constitution. Previously, judges had found changes to school policy should be left up to the state Legislature, not the courts.

That decision, in the class-action desegregation lawsuit brought by Alejandro Cruz-Guzman, cleared the way for the Forslund case to be reconsidered. Cruz-Guzman alleges state laws lead to segregated schools where students of color receive an inequitable education.

Minnesota has one of the nation's largest academic achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their white and more affluent classmates. Widespread efforts to close those gaps have largely been unsuccessful.

State education officials and teachers union leaders have opposed the Forslund case, arguing that union protections provide due process in employment decisions and allow teachers to speak up when school policies hurt their students. They also believe it is the job of state lawmakers to change education policy.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said the ruling was expected after the Cruz-Guzman decision.

"Education Minnesota will continue to present the evidence that everyone benefits when due process protections like tenure give teachers the freedom to advocate for their students, to speak truth to parents and to innovate in their classrooms," Specht said. "In the past, we've made the case to the public, to legislators and to school board members. If it's time to do the same thing in the courts, we're ready."

The Legislature has made some changes to teachers union rules and other education policies.

In 2017, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton signed an education budget bill that included a Republican-backed provision that removed seniority-based layoffs when districts have to cut staff as the fallback policy in state law.

Now, every school district must negotiate a local system for layoffs, but seniority can still be used as a key factor.

Minnesota has also created a system for evaluating teachers and helping them improve their instruction.

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