Battles Continue Over Teacher Employment Issues

Last Updated: September 24, 2014

This article appeared in the September 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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In the last several years a wave of federal and state initiatives and politically charged lawsuits have sought to alter, sometimes dramatically, the policy landscape affecting how teachers are hired, fired, evaluated, and paid. In this RPM article, we look at several high-profile issues and how they are playing out.

USDE: Teacher evaluation waivers

While the Bush administration’s federal No Child Left Behind law made student testing a national requirement, the Obama administration formally tied student testing to teacher evaluations. The federal Race to the Top grants required states to create assessments of teacher effectiveness based in large part on student test scores.

When the Department offered states waivers from sanctions related to certain aspects of student testing, it was with the stipulation that states agree to link teacher measures to student test scores. Most states took the deal, in part to avoid having to label all their schools as failing because less than 100% of students attained the required test scores.

Teacher groups have tended to resist, arguing that effective teaching is far more complex that what can be reflected in a single test score. They often note that test scores are more heavily influenced by student socio-economic factors that limit opportunity than by teacher practices.

Further, teacher groups have noted that out-of-school factors known to produce negative effect on student test scores have been intensified by the Great Recession. The recession drove child poverty rates higher, and it propelled states to cut education budgets, increase class sizes, and slash funding for programs that provide extra support for students with the most severe challenges.

These appeals, however, seemed to gain little traction.

But last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced changes to federal policy that would release some states from the requirement to fold student test scores into teacher evaluations—at least for this school year.

While Duncan noted increasing public concern about the emphasis on testing and conceded that testing may have gone too far, the biggest driver in the one-year delay appears to be the controversial Common Core standards and assessments. The standards have come under increasing political attack and many states have struggled to implement them.

The delay in linking student test scores to teacher evaluations will give states more time to adjust to the Common Core. It also means the teacher evaluation provisions would go into effect during the presidential election year of 2015–16, and Duncan has hinted they could be delayed another year.

Wisconsin: Contract negotiations

Arguably the most rancorous political debates over teacher contracts occurred in Wisconsin in 2011. Teachers and others vigorously opposed Act 10, which eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public employees. The law, championed by Republican Governor Scott Walker, made it illegal for employers to negotiate anything other than minimal salary increases.

The law was appealed and eventually upheld by two federal courts and a state court.

One of the lawsuits against Act 10 was filed by Madison Teachers Incorporated. Circuit Judge Juan Colas ruled that the law did not apply to the group. While the state appealed, the Madison School Board and teachers negotiated two one-year contracts for the 2014–25 and 2015–16 school years. Those contracts included some changes to teacher-assignment practices, working conditions, and benefits.

This month the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed a lawsuit against the school board, the teachers’ union, and the school district charging that the contracts violated the state’s restrictions on collective bargaining. The group argues the district should have known the contracts would be found illegal. It charges that the school board and school district illegally spent taxpayer funds in negotiating and implementing the contracts and that taxpayers will be irreparably harmed if the contracts stand.

Defenders of the contracts point out that they were made while the case was on appeal. Some in the state charge that the lawsuit is also an attempt to damage Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke who challenged Walker in the last election. Burke is a member of the Madison School Board, but she is not individually named in the lawsuit.


California Governor Jerry Brown has filed an appeal of the ruling in Vergara v California. In that case, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu found that the state awards tenure too soon—at the end of a teacher’s second year; that its dismissal procedures are too complex; and that last-in-first-out rules during teacher layoffs insufficiently weigh factors other than longevity. (See prior RPM coverage here.)

Treu also stayed implementation of the ruling until the appeals process is complete.

In the appeal, Brown and state attorney general, Kamala Harris, argue that the decision should be reviewed by either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court and that Treu had declined to “provide a detailed statement of the factual and legal bases for its ruling.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, who was named in the lawsuit, also asked Harris to file an appeal. Torlakson has said the ruling is not supported by facts and is too vague.

Read more:

Teacher testing

Wisconsin collective bargaining

California tenure appeal

Read more from the September 2014
Rural Policy Matters.