If Education Reformers Are Concerned About a Teacher Shortage, Then Why Are They Attacking Teachers?

Sarah Lahm

Chicago Public Schools former CEO Arne Duncan can smile for the kids, but not for their schools. (US Department of Education / Flickr)

Depend­ing on who you lis­ten to, Minnesota’s pub­lic school teach­ers are either too hard to get rid of or too hard to find, hire and keep around. Thanks to two recent devel­op­ments — first, a state report on teacher sup­ply and demand, and sec­ond, a very pub­lic law­suit aimed at chal­leng­ing the state’s teacher tenure laws — this is the con­tra­dic­to­ry place Min­neso­ta now finds itself in.

In ear­ly March, the Min­neso­ta Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion put out a man­dat­ed, bien­ni­al report doc­u­ment­ing teacher sup­ply and demand in the state. The report shows that Min­neso­ta is fac­ing an alarm­ing teacher short­age, espe­cial­ly in noto­ri­ous­ly hard to fill” posi­tions like spe­cial edu­ca­tion and bilin­gual instruc­tion. Nine­ty-six per­cent of Minnesota’s teach­ers are also white, accord­ing to the report, yet one-third of the state’s stu­dent pop­u­la­tion are kids of col­or, due to a stat­ed inabil­i­ty to find and retain teach­ers that look like their stu­dents. (Dis­tricts around the Unit­ed States are fac­ing sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions, accord­ing to a 2015 report by New York Times edu­ca­tion reporter Motoko Rich.)

School dis­tricts in rur­al Min­neso­ta are also strug­gling might­i­ly to attract teach­ers, lead­ing a grass­roots advo­ca­cy group, called MREA, to make this online dec­la­ra­tion: Min­neso­ta can no longer turn a blind eye to the severe teacher short­ages and long-term teacher sup­ply issues in the state. A lack of teach­ers is affect­ing aca­d­e­m­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties and achieve­ment in our schools.” MREA has worked along­side groups such as the statewide teach­ers union, Edu­ca­tion Min­neso­ta, to make expand­ing Minnesota’s teach­ing pool a high pri­or­i­ty for the state’s 2016 leg­isla­tive session.

But on April 13, a dif­fer­ent set of pri­or­i­ties emerged, as Min­neso­ta became the third state — after Cal­i­for­nia and New York—to become ground zero in a bil­lion­aire-backed war against teacher tenure and last in, first out” senior­i­ty-based lay­off rules. In St. Paul, while leg­is­la­tors, teach­ers and union advo­cates wres­tled with how to rapid­ly and equi­tably expand Minnesota’s teach­ing force, a law­suit chal­leng­ing the state’s teacher tenure and senior­i­ty-based lay­off rules sud­den­ly com­mand­ed a flur­ry of attention.

The law­suit was filed on behalf of a hand­ful of plain­tiffs, with the sup­port of local and nation­al law firms, as well as nation­al edu­ca­tion reform groups Stu­dents for Edu­ca­tion Reform and the Part­ner­ship for Edu­ca­tion­al Jus­tice. At a press con­fer­ence to announce the law­suit, plain­tiff Tiffi­ni Fly­nn Forslund of sub­ur­ban Min­neapo­lis framed the pur­pose for the case, stat­ing that when her now-sev­en­teen year-old daugh­ter was in fifth grade, the girl’s teacher, con­sid­ered high­ly effec­tive” by Fly­nn Forslund, was laid off, while oth­er, more senior teach­ers kept their jobs.

Let­ting go of a good teacher” just didn’t make sense, Fly­nn Forslund told the New York Times on April 13. (Fly­nn Forslund also worked with edu­ca­tion reform groups in 2012 and 2014 to try — unsuc­cess­ful­ly — and change Minnesota’s laws around senior­i­ty-based lay­offs.) The theme of effec­tive” teach­ers has run through the debut of the Min­neso­ta law­suit, with an attor­ney for the plain­tiffs, Jesse Stew­art, claim­ing that tenure — attain­able after three years in Min­neso­ta — allows teach­ers to bail out of more chal­leng­ing schools, leav­ing teach­ers who are demon­stra­bly inef­fec­tive teach­ing stu­dents who need the best that’s out there.” (What makes a teacher inef­fec­tive” is not spelled out, but the default mea­sur­ing stick has been eval­u­at­ing teach­ers by stu­dent test scores.)

The law­suit also car­ries the now-famil­iar charge — includ­ed in both the New York and Cal­i­for­nia law­suits — that tenure pro­vides teach­ers with life­time employ­ment,” most­ly at the expense of racial­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed stu­dents. The asser­tion here is that schools with high con­cen­tra­tions of low-income stu­dents of col­or get stuck with the poor­est per­form­ing teach­ers, who are pro­tect­ed — no mat­ter what — by tenure laws and teacher unions.

But Min­neso­ta seemed ready for these chal­lenges, despite the dis­trac­tion posed by the state’s teacher short­age cri­sis. When the tenure law­suit dropped, Minnesota’s state edu­ca­tion com­mis­sion­er, Bren­da Cas­sel­lius, imme­di­ate­ly pushed back on the idea that earn­ing tenure allows teacher to coast to retire­ment, unchecked. Cas­sel­lius flipped the con­cept, telling the Min­neapo­lis Star Tri­bune that the state has rig­or­ous laws that pro­tect due process for teach­ers and that, when fol­lowed, pro­vide school admin­is­tra­tors and school board with the author­i­ty to remove teach­ers.” Her point? Teach­ers can be fired, with or with­out tenure, but the process helps pro­tect teach­ers from being indis­crim­i­nate­ly dismissed.

Cassellius’s resis­tance may have been bol­stered by an unex­pect­ed chal­lenge to the pre­vi­ous­ly suc­cess­ful, 2014 Cal­i­for­nia case against tenure, com­mon­ly referred to as the Ver­gara case. On April 15, a Cal­i­for­nia court over­turned a low­er court’s sup­port for the Ver­gara case, say­ing that those fil­ing the law­suit had not shown that the state’s rules gov­ern­ing tenure were respon­si­ble or where teach­ers actu­al­ly work. (A com­pelling reflec­tion on teach­ers of col­or and why they leave the class­room can be found at the Hechinger Report. Notably, get­ting laid off is not mentioned.)

Instead, the judges point­ed out, it is school admin­is­tra­tors — not state laws — that place teach­ers in schools. The Cal­i­for­nia judges acknowl­edged that many stu­dents are ill served in Cal­i­for­nia pub­lic schools,” accord­ing to a Los Ange­les Times sto­ry, but did not affix blame for this on laws that gov­ern teacher tenure. This rais­es a com­pelling point: if teacher tenure rules are not to blame for the chron­ic under­per­for­mance” of stu­dents of col­or, than who or what is?

This may be the ques­tion the law­suits are designed to side­step. The New York and Min­neso­ta law­suits have both been backed by for­mer jour­nal­ist Camp­bell Brown’s group, the Part­ner­ship for Edu­ca­tion­al Jus­tice (along with the hedge fund sup­port­ed Astro­turf” group, Stu­dents for Edu­ca­tion Reform). Brown has been famous­ly silent about who is fund­ing this part­ner­ship” and its stack of law­suits against teacher tenure; this pen­chant for secre­cy goes back to her first for­ay into edu­ca­tion reform advo­ca­cy in 2013.

Back then, Brown launched a group called the Par­ent Trans­paren­cy Project,” whose aim was to bring trans­paren­cy to teacher union con­tracts,” accord­ing to an Octo­ber, 2013 arti­cle in Moth­er Jones. This project” was paint­ed as a way to call out unions, who, accord­ing to Brown, were pro­tect­ing scads of sex­u­al deviants pos­ing as teach­ers. Behind the sen­sa­tion­al­ism — which was quick­ly dis­put­ed by union rep­re­sen­ta­tives, such as Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers pres­i­dent, Ran­di Wein­garten — lurked Brown’s undis­closed con­nec­tions to reform groups such as Stu­dents­First, start­ed by Michelle Rhee, or the polit­i­cal nature of her new trans­paren­cy project.”

Brown would not say then who was fund­ing her attack on teacher union poli­cies, nor did she detail the Project’s links to Repub­li­can strate­gists, despite claims that the group was some­how apo­lit­i­cal (the Project was launched in New York City, dur­ing the city’s 2013 may­oral race). Brown then estab­lished the Part­ner­ship for Edu­ca­tion­al Jus­tice in order to bring a Ver­gara-like tenure law­suit to New York state, and now, to Min­neso­ta. (Reveal­ing a tight cir­cle of influ­ence, Brown also fronts the new, edu­ca­tion-focused news out­let, the74mil​lion​.org, which then cov­ers sto­ries gen­er­at­ed by Brown’s edu­ca­tion reform advo­ca­cy groups.)

Brown, along with her Part­ner­ship for Edu­ca­tion­al Jus­tice and its part­ner in tenure law­suits, Stu­dents for Edu­ca­tion Reform, has been linked to deep-pock­et­ed bil­lion­aires and hedge fund man­agers, whose pro-school choice, pro-mar­ket based reform agen­da has been well doc­u­ment­ed. As these forces bear down on Minnesota’s tenure and senior­i­ty lay­off rules, they may have over­looked one cru­cial fac­tor: the state’s rapid­ly dimin­ish­ing pool of teachers.

That leads to a ques­tion: whose pri­or­i­ties are dri­ving these law­suits? At the Min­neso­ta state capi­tol this spring, Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­tors have joined forces to pro­pose reme­dies for what many are call­ing the teacher short­age cri­sis.” Strate­gies put for­ward include teacher loan for­give­ness, to address the cost of becom­ing a teacher, and sup­port for Grow Your Own” pro­grams, to expand path­ways to the pro­fes­sion for teach­ers of color.

Nowhere, in all of this bi-par­ti­san action, are tenure and lay­off rules list­ed as fac­tors in Minnesota’s declin­ing num­ber of teach­ers. How­ev­er, an analy­sis by the Min­neso­ta School Board Asso­ci­a­tion does offer a few key rea­sons why more peo­ple are not becom­ing teachers.

The first one on the list? Lack of respect for the profession.”

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She is a 2015 Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine Edu­ca­tion Fel­low and blogs about edu­ca­tion at bright​lights​mall​ci​ty​.com.
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