By Wendy Lecker
On January 22, in another setback to the legal effort to undermine teacher due process protections, a Minnesota appeals court affirmed the dismissal of Forslund v. State, a lawsuit seeking to strike down provisions of that state’s teacher tenure laws.
The case was filed in 2016 by Minnesota public school parents, who were supported by the now defunct Partnership for Educational Justice (PEJ). PEJ was an education reform group started by former television news personality Campbell Brown and backed similar due process suits in New Jersey and New York.
In the Minnesota case the plaintiffs charged that various provisions of the state’s laws governing teacher employment made it difficult for districts to dismiss ineffective teachers. The plaintiffs further claimed that, as a result, their children had been taught or might be taught by ineffective teachers in violation of the right to an adequate education and equal protection under Minnesota’s State Constitution.
A Minnesota lower court had previously dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims on three grounds: 1) the claim under Minnesota’s Education Article was a political question not appropriate for the courts, or “non-justiciable;” 2) the parents lacked standing; and 3) the plaintiffs failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Minnesota appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the case on justiciability grounds.
At the same time this case was pending, another unrelated case, Cruz-Guzman v. State, alleging that school segregation in Minnesota violated the Education Article, was also pending and also raised the justiciability question. After deciding in Cruz-Guzman that Education Article claims are justiciable, the Minnesota Supreme Court remanded Forslund to the Appellate Court for reconsideration.
In the January 22 decision, the Appeals Court observed that the Forslund plaintiffs asserted claims that the tenure laws violated the Education Article and Equal Protection clause of the state constitution. Since the Supreme Court in Cruz-Guzman held that claims involving the constitutional right to education were non-political claims subject to judicial review, the Appeals Court here ruled that the Forslund plaintiffs’ claims were also subject to judicial review. The Court further found that as parents in public schools whose children could be affected by the alleged constitutional violation, the plaintiffs had standing to sue. Thus, at this early stage, the complaint could not be dismissed on the grounds of non-justiciability or lack of standing.
While allowing the complaint to be considered, the Appeals Court nonetheless affirmed the dismissal of the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim under either the Education Article or the Equal Protection Clause.
The Appeals Court noted that the right to an adequate education is a positive right, imposing upon the Minnesota Legislature the obligation to affirmatively provide children with an education. Thus, the Court stated, to prevail in an Education Article claim, a plaintiff must present facts to show the Legislature has failed or is failing to provide an adequate education to Minnesota public school children.
The Forslund plaintiffs argued that they did not have to prove that their children were being denied an adequate education. Rather, they only asserted that the tenure laws “impinged” on the right to an adequate education. The Appeals Court noted that the plaintiffs were attempting to transform the positive right to a baseline education into a negative right “to be free from any alleged government interference in obtaining an adequate education.” Since the plaintiffs provided no authority for this novel interpretation, their claim was dismissed.
The court ruled that in order for the equal protection claim to survive, the plaintiffs needed to share some objectively identifiable characteristic other than being harmed by the challenged statute. For example, a shared characteristic could be race. The plaintiffs failed to identify any other characteristic, and thus the court dismissed the claim on these grounds as well. The court cited another failed tenure case, Vergara v. California, in which the California appellate court dismissed the equal protection claim on the same grounds.
A Pattern of Failure
Though the Partnership for Educational Justice is no longer active, it released a statement at the end of February indicating that the plaintiffs have decided not to pursue an appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Minnesota is now the third state where lawsuits challenging teacher workplace protections have failed. Courts in California and New Jersey also rejected attempts to turn the constitutional right to education against those who are at the heart of effectuating that right for all students: our teachers.
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