KNEA taking tenure battle into mixed judicial environment

The state’s largest teachers union announced this week (sort of) that it plans to launch a legal fight over teacher tenure rights. But it will be doing so in a clouded judicial environment where two recent court rulings have gone in opposite directions.

The Kansas National Education Association on Monday held a news conference, which had been scheduled three days in advance, to announce that it intends to file a suit sometime this month challenging a bill passed by the Kansas Legislature that repeals tenure rights, which KNEA prefers to call “due process rights.”

In Kansas, tenure meant that once a teacher passed a probationary period, typically three to five years, he or she was entitled to an administrative due process hearing before an independent hearing officer before being summarily fired or nonrenewed for the following year.

“We believe that the due process-stripping parts of the bill were enacted by an improper procedure and that they improperly deprive teachers of a basic expectation of fairness in termination decisions,” KNEA said in its written statement. Officials did not say what procedures they claim were improper.

The announcement came in between two recent state court decisions, California and North Carolina, that took polar opposite views of tenure rights and which, taken together, reveal the nature of the conflict and the reasons why it’s being fought so hard in Kansas and elsewhere.

The most recent decision was this week in Los Angeles the second-largest public school district in the nation, which has more students (660,000) than the entire state of Kansas (480,000). There, a superior court judge said the entire concept of teacher tenure was unconstitutional because it deprived students of their constitutional right to an education.

In LA, Judge Rolf M. Treu said the California tenure rules, which are much more generous to teachers than those in Kansas, make it virtually impossible to fire ineffective teachers. And in particular, he said, low-income and minority neighborhoods too often become the dumping ground for the districts’ worst teachers.

He also cited a study by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty who testified that, “a single year in a classroom with a grossly ineffective teacher costs students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings per classroom.”

That decision stands in sharp contrast to one just a few weeks earlier in which a North Carolina judge ruled that legislative action that greatly abridged teacher tenure rights was an unconstitutional “taking” of a property right interest.

That ruling, however, applied only to those teachers who (a) were already vested with tenure rights and (b) stood to lose those rights under the new North Carolina law, which said long-term contracts could be offered only to the top 25 percent of teachers deemed most effective, based on criteria the state hadn’t yet determined.

It will be interesting to see which direction Kansas courts choose to take when, or if, the KNEA files its lawsuit.