NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) said today she has requested an attorney general’s opinion on whether Tennessee’s teacher employment laws are constitutional. The request comes after a California Superior Court struck down various teacher tenure and seniority statutes under that state’s constitution and the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause in the Vergara v. California case. Teacher unions plan to appeal the ruling.
“This is a very important decision regarding teacher employment laws, which will reverberate to states across the nation, said Senator Gresham. “Tennessee, like California, has its own constitutional provision regarding student’s education rights in addition to the Equal Protection Clause afforded by the U.S. Constitution. We certainly need to make sure that we are on sound constitutional footing, and especially whether the reforms passed over the last several years will satisfy the constitutional tests as decided in this ruling.”
The California case was filed by nine public school students who charged that state laws forced districts to give tenure to teachers, regardless of whether they can do the job. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu found the California law was unconstitutional, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That decision declared that state laws which established that separate schools for white and black children were unconstitutional. “In these days,” the court said, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”
Gresham asked Attorney General Robert Cooper whether the current statutes or state law in effect prior to July 1, 2011 governing permanent employment violate students’ rights to a free education under the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee or U.S. Constitution. The General Assembly passed teacher tenure reform legislation in 2011 which changes a teacher’s probationary period before becoming eligible for tenure from three to five years as well as linking tenure status to performance evaluations. Gresham also asked the Attorney General if Tennessee law or the statutes in effect prior to July 1, 2014, governing layoffs or the dismissal and suspension of teachers violate student’s rights to a free education under the federal and state constitutions.