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Teacher Evaluation Heads to the Courts

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The policy frenzy to establish new methods for evaluating teachers over the past few years has led to an unintended byproduct: lots of litigation.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as well as their affiliates, have been busily filing lawsuits challenging aspects of the systems in both federal and state courts. The unions’ strategies are diverse, hinging on both procedural and substantive complaints.

Some of the lawsuits challenge how the new systems were put into place, as in New Mexico and Louisiana.

Unions in Tennessee and Florida have contested key grading components, particularly the use of student test scores to judge all teachers. And in New York, the unions question the system’s baseline fairness, saying it doesn’t adequately account for variations in student poverty.

Key:
AFT Lawsuits
NEA Lawsuits
Merged-Union Lawsuits

Still other lawsuits have taken aim not at teacher evaluation itself, but at related matters like tenure, as in Nevada.

How these cases play out may determine the course and sustainability of evaluation changes in the coming years. This guide provides a breakdown of the cases and updates on their statuses.

Florida

Date filed: April 16, 2013

Alleged violations: Affiliates of the Florida Education Association filed this lawsuit in federal court alleging that teachers in subjects without statewide standardized tests are being judged unfairly on the progress of students they don’t teach or in subjects they don’t teach, via a “schoolwide” growth formula.

Status: COMPLETED: A federal court judge ruled for the state in May 2014, and the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in July 2015. The Florida Education Association will not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Date filed: Sept. 14, 2011

Alleged violations: The Florida Education Association argued that the 2011 evaluation law, which contained merit-pay provisions, conflicted with the state constitution’s guarantee for teachers to collectively bargain wages. It also argued that the law impermissibly gave legislative authority to the executive branch.

Status: COMPLETED: A state court judge ruled for the state in May 2013. An appeal was rejected in January 2015, and the state supreme court did not take up a jurisdictional review.

Louisiana

Date filed: June 7, 2012

Alleged violations: The Louisiana Federation of Teachers argued that a 2012 law tying teacher evaluation to tenure and pay scales violated a constitutional provision requiring legislation to pertain only to one topic.

Status: COMPLETED: Of all the lawsuits, this one’s legal path has been the most complex. A state court judge initially let the combined teacher-quality provisions stand, but after a second review struck down the law in March 2013. In October 2014, the state supreme court reversed the lower court’s ruling. The union said it will seek further changes through the legislature.

Nevada
Leff et al. v. Clark County School District

Date Filed: June 18, 2015

Alleged violations: A 2011 law allowed districts to fire a tenured teacher with two consecutive annual “ineffective” evaluation ratings without a due process hearing. The Clark County Education Association has sued in federal court, arguing that teachers tenured before the law went into effect have vested contractual rights in their employment and can only be terminated for cause following a hearing.

Status: IN PROGRESS: The school district’s motion to dismiss the case is pending.

New Mexico

Date filed: February 13, 2015

Alleged violations: The Albuquerque Federation of Teachers and several Democratic state legislators argue that teachers received poor ratings because of flawed or incomplete data, including teachers being linked to the wrong students or subjects, and incorrect student-attendance records.

Status: IN PROGRESS: In June 2015, a state court judge denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. In September 2015, the court held a hearing on a preliminary injunction.

Date filed: September 11, 2013

Alleged violations: The AFT-New Mexico argued that Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera violated the state’s School Personnel Act by issuing new teacher-evaluation regulations after legislative proposals to that end failed.

Status: COMPLETED: A state court judge rejected the suit in November 2013, as did an appeals court in January 2015. The plaintiffs did not seek review in the state supreme court.

Date filed: September 29, 2014

Alleged violations: The lawsuit filed by the NEA-New Mexico alleges that the state education department impermissibly imposed its new evaluation system, overriding a law giving school districts control over teacher evaluation.

Status: IN PROGRESS: In August 2015, a state court denied the state’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. The case will proceed to discovery.

New York
Urbanski v. King
Lederman v. King

Date filed: March 10, 2014

Alleged violations: he Rochester Teachers Association alleges that the state fails to fully account for poverty in the test-score-based formula used for evaluation, penalizing some teachers. The lawsuit also takes aim at the scoring for local student-growth measures and contends the state imposed regulations without public comment.

Status: IN PROGRESS: A decision on the state’s motion to dismiss the suit is pending.

Date filed: April 16, 2014

Alleged violations: The Syracuse Teachers Association says the state fails to fully account for poverty in the student-growth formula used for evaluation, penalizing some teachers. The lawsuit also takes aim at the scoring for local student-growth measures and contends the state imposed regulations without public comment.

Status: IN PROGRESS: A decision on the state’s motion to dismiss is pending.

Date filed: Oct. 24, 2014

Alleged violations: Teacher Sheri G. Lederman, of the Great Neck district, argues that the state’s method for ranking teachers is subject to inconsistencies, saying she was rated “effective” in one year and “ineffective” the following year, despite garnering similar student-achievement-growth scores both years.

Status: IN PROGRESS: A state court judge ruled in June 2015 that the lawsuit could proceed. Oral arguments in the New York Supreme Court (a trial court) were heard in August 2015.

The state teachers' union is not a part in this lawsuit.

Tennessee
Trout v. Knox County Board of Education

Date filed: March 19, 2014

Alleged violations: The Tennessee Education Association alleges in this federal suit that a teacher missed out on a pay bonus because the test-score-based portion of her evaluation was based on only a fraction of her students.

Status: IN PROGRESS: The lawsuit was combined with the Trout suit, below. A ruling on a state motion to dismiss the suit is pending.

Date filed: March 19, 2014

Alleged violations: Similar to the above, this federal lawsuit filed by the Tennessee Education Association alleges that a teacher missed out on a pay bonus due to a miscalculation of the test-score-based portion of her evaluation. The teacher was supposed to be graded on schoolwide performance, but ended up being judged on just 10 students’ performance.

Status: IN PROGRESS: The lawsuit was combined with the Taylor suit. A ruling on a state motion to dismiss the suit is pending, as is a motion by Knox County for judgment on the pleadings.

Date filed: Feb. 5, 2015

Alleged violations: In a federal lawsuit, the Tennessee Education Association challenged the use of a composite, “schoolwide” growth measure for evaluating teachers in “nontested” subjects like art and music.

Status: COMPLETED: A federal court judge dismissed the lawsuit in June 2015. The union does not plan to appeal.

Texas

Date Filed: April 30, 2014

Alleged violations: The Houston Federation of Teachers union argues that the standard for what constitutes enough student growth under the district’s evaluation system is vague, that the statistical evaluation method chosen is opaque, and that certain groups of teachers, such as those who teach English-language learners, are at risk of lower scores.

Status: IN PROGRESS: A trial is scheduled to begin June 20, 2016.

Reporting: Stephen Sawchuk (@Stephen_Sawchuk) | Library Intern Maya Riser-Kositsky provided research assistance. | Design & Visualization: Stacey Decker

Vol. 35, Issue 07, Page 15

Published in Print: October 7, 2015, as Teacher Evaluation Heads to the Courts
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