Lawsuit challenging TN teacher evaluation dismissed

If Tennessee’s teachers want to change the way they are evaluated, they need to vote, not sue, a federal judge said in a ruling dismissing a Knox County case that challenged the constitutionality of the state’s evaluation scheme, reports the News Sentinel.

U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr., in a ruling made public Wednesday, has tossed out of court lawsuits filed by two Knox County teachers and later adopted by the Tennessee Education Association challenging the use of test scores from the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, in evaluations that determine such things as bonuses.

The lawsuits, filed in 2014 by teachers Lisa Trout and Mark Taylor, were said to be test cases for the entire state, but Mattice ruled the teachers flunked because they could not show either through their situations or relevant case law the state’s evaluation process violates teachers’ constitutional rights. At most, Mattice said, the teachers could make a case for breach of contract, but that is a state court claim best left for the state judicial system.

In striking down the lawsuit, Mattice was not unsympathetic to the teachers’ claims the evaluation process, particularly with its use of TVAAS scores measuring student growth — not teacher performance — using an algorithm that is not fail proof.

“The court notes that (teachers’) criticism of the statistic methods of TVAAS are not unfounded,” he wrote.

But their beef, the judge ruled, is not with the constitution, but the Tennessee Legislature.

“In addressing (the educators’) constitutional claims … this court’s role is extremely limited,” Mattice wrote. “The judiciary is not empowered to second-guess the wisdom of the Tennessee Legislature’s approach to solving the problems facing public education but rather must determine whether the policy at issue is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

“While the court expresses no opinion as to whether the Tennessee Legislature has enacted sound public policy, it finds that the use of TVAAS as a means to measure teacher efficacy survives minimal constitutional scrutiny. If this policy proves to be unworkable in practice, plaintiffs are not to be vindicated by judicial intervention but rather by democratic process.”

At issue in the lawsuits was a key component of the evaluation apparatus created by the state to garner funding for education under the federal “Race to the Top” initiative — and its most controversial provision.

In the lawsuits, Trout and Taylor claimed using tests scores from TVAAS of students they don’t even teach or subject areas in which they are not certified was unfair, unreliable and a violation of their constitutional due process rights.

Only certain grade levels take those tests, and not every teacher taught those students who take the tests. But the scores make up 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score, which the legal action by the pair says affects bonuses, promotions, firing decisions and improvement requirements.

Trout filed suit against Knox County Schools after she was denied a bonus tied to the state scores while a teacher at the Richard Yoakley School, an alternative school for struggling students. The tests involved algebra II. Trout is certified in algebra I. Taylor, a science teacher, sued when his evaluation score dipped below the level needed to garner a bonus because of scores of students he did not teach.