Florida Teacher Lawsuit Could Spread to Other States

The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's new teacher evaluation system was touted as the first of its kind, but it's unlikely to be the last.
May 14, 2013
 

The lawsuit filed by seven Florida teachers last month, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new teacher evaluation system, was touted as the first of its kind, but it’s unlikely to be the last.

The teachers’ complaint, backed by the state's largest teacher union--the Florida Education Association--and the National Education Association (NEA), centered on one fact: the new system, which required student performance to make up a certain percentage of a teacher’s annual performance review, led to teachers being evaluated based on the test scores of students they had never taught. Sometimes, they were judged by the test scores of students from another school altogether. The lawsuit alleges that this method of assessment infringes on the teachers’ due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution, because the Florida law allows evaluations to to be used in personnel decisions, including raises and terminations.

Because the case revolves around a constitutional question, it will be heard by federal judges on the U.S. District Court for Northern Florida. A ruling overturning the state’s teacher evaluation system completely, which is what the plaintiffs are seeking, could then serve as precedent for other lawsuits in other states.

Advocates and experts have already turned their eyes to two states specifically: Arizona and Tennessee. Both states will soon implement teacher evaluation programs that will allow teachers to be assessed in part by the performance of students they didn’t directly teach.

“The Florida case would definitely have some implications for other states. This definitely bears watching because teachers elsewhere are going to sue under due process grounds,” says Preston Green, an education law professor at Penn State University. “You’re going to see variations of this type of challenge in the next few years.”

The teachers unions--which have frequently criticized evaluation systems like Florida’s, arguing that such systems too heavily on testing metrics--aren’t saying explicitly where they might focus their efforts next. But they have hinted that they’ve got their eyes on some specific states where a similar challenge could be mounted.

“The solution that Florida arrived at was the most expeditious and cheapest solution. It doesn't give any meaningful feedback. It’s not going to measure whether students learned, but if you're interested in a check-the-box system, it does do that,” says Alice O’Brien, general counsel for the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union. “We’re closely monitoring how these evaluations are being developed. The Florida case is a case that we would bring elsewhere if other people were to reach for the cheap and easy solution, but we hope that people will not.”

Though O’Brien declined to name names, Arizona and Tennessee seem like the most likely candidates for the same case to be made. Like Florida, those states have solved a problem common to all teacher evaluations based on student performance—many teachers teach subjects, such as art, music or science, not covered by statewide standardized tests—by applying a schoolwide average of test scores to those teachers whose subjects aren’t tested. That is the same allegedly unfair treatment that led these seven Florida teachers to file their lawsuit in April.

The circumstances in Florida share a lot in common with Tennessee, says Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, and her union is keeping an eye out for any situation where a teacher is injured by the use of schoolwide averages in their evaluations. For now, Summerford says the union is monitoring the events in Florida with great interest.

"The basis of the Florida case, that's something we've anticipating being problematic in our state as well," she says. "They've already found standing to file suit, but in our case, we do not know of any cases yet. But we anticipate those same issues to arise."

State officials in Arizona and Tennessee will also be keeping a close eye on how things turn out in Florida (the case could take as long as a year to be decided). “When it comes, it’ll certainly be big news,” says Mary Marshall, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education. “Our folks are watching the Florida case with interest.”

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